Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Silence at New Year's

New Year’s celebrations are marked by noise:  fireworks, the banging of pots and pans, noisemakers, and the happy revels of party-goers.  One-hundred years ago, sixteen months after the start of the Great War that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914, Ada May Harrison wrote a short New Year’s poem, “Those that go down into silence.”

Very little is known about Ada May Harrison: she published a scholarly work on Anne Bronte and wrote several children’s books (among them one with the intriguing title of The Adventures of Polly Peppermint).  Several of her books were illustrated by her husband, Robert Austin, an artist and printmaker who designed the ten shillings and one-pound notes issued in the early 1960s.  He fought in the First World War and survived. 

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery
 (A reading of the poem is available here.)

New Year, 1916

Those that go down into silence…. 

There is no silence in their going down,
Although their grave-turf is not wet with tears,
Although Grief passes by them, and Renown
Has garnered them no glory for the years.

The cloud of war moves on, and men forget
That empires fall. We go our heedless ways
Unknowing still, uncaring still, and yet
The very dust is clamorous with their praise.
The first line of the poem – or perhaps it is an elaboration of the title – is taken from Psalm 115:17: “The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.”  The dead are silent, and yet the poem asks us to remember that their death was not peaceful, but most likely accompanied by the deafening roar of artillery shells, machine guns, and explosions.    

This is a poem that warns about forgetting.  Marking the new year, those who are living look ahead to the future.  Even the cloud of war has moved on, and the graves of the thousands upon thousands of the dead are not "wet with tears," but neglected.  And yet...the poem closes with the assurance that the very ground in which the soldiers lie will loudly shout their praise.  

Short and poignant, the poem challenges readers to remember the dead.  It protests against indifference and callousness as it asks all who live to celebrate the new year to join with the dead in silence, to pause and consider those who sacrificed their futures on the battlefields of the First World War.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Christmas is supposed to be a season of comfort and joy, but many people struggle through the holidays, especially those who have lost someone they love.  The empty place at the table – the voice that will never be heard again:  despair and loneliness are too often the unwelcome guests at festive gatherings of families and friends.

One hundred years ago, in December of 1915, Vera Brittain, a young VAD nurse just shy of her 22nd birthday (29 December), was excitedly awaiting a visit from her fiancé, Roland Aubrey Leighton. In the last week of November, Roland had written to Vera, “Just a short letter before I go to bed. The Battalion is back in the trenches now and I am writing in the dugout that I share with the doctor….Through the door I can see little mounds of snow that are the parapets of trenches, a short stretch of railway line, and a very brilliant full moon.  I wonder what you are doing. Asleep, I hope—or sitting in front of a fire in blue and white striped pyjamas? I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas.” 
Roland Leighton

On December 17th, Vera received a message from Roland suggesting he might get his wish to see her -- pyjamas aren’t mentioned: “Leave from December 24 – 31st.  Land on Christmas Day.” 

That Christmas Eve, Vera worked with other nurses filling soldiers' stockings with candy and nuts, and on the following morning, she attended Christmas communion at the hospital chapel, where she knelt to “thank whatever God there be for Roland and for all my love and joy.”

She then caught a train to Brighton, where she waited for her fiancé’s arrival.  With time on her hands, she wrote on December 26th, “I walked along the promenade, and looked at the grey sea tossing rough with white surf-crested waves, and felt a little anxiety at the kind of crossing he had had.  But at any rate he should be safely in England by this time, though he probably has not been able to send me any message to-day owing to the difficulties of telephones and telegrams on Sunday & Christmas Day combined….So I only have to wait for the morrow with such patience as I can manage.” 

On Monday December 27th she received news of Roland:    
“I had just finished dressing when a message came to say that there was a telephone message for me.  I sprang up joyfully, thinking to hear in a moment the dear dreamed-of tones of the beloved voice. But the telephone message was not from was not to say that Roland had arrived, but that instead had come this telegram...'Regret to inform you that Lieut. R.A. Leighton 7th Worcesters died of wounds December 23rd...'"

Perhaps by Vera Brittain
(To R.A.L. died of wounds in France , December 23rd 1915)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to the Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

On his last day of duty, Leighton had volunteered to proceed before his men into No Man’s Land, where they were repairing wire in front of their trench.  Almost immediately the target of German machine gunfire, he was severely wounded in the stomach and spine.  Carried by stretcher to a hospital clearing station, Roland died the next evening. 

Vera Brittain
On New Year’s Eve, Vera wrote her last diary entry for 1915: “This time last year He was seeing me off on Charing Cross Station after David Copperfield – and I had just begun to realize I loved Hjm.  To-day He is lying in the military cemetery at Louvencourt—because a week ago He was wounded in action, and had just 24 hours of consciousness more and then went ‘to sleep in France.”  And I who in impatience felt a fortnight ago that I could not wait another minute to see Him, must wait till all Eternity.  All has been given me, and all taken away again – in one year.  So I wonder where we shall be – what we shall all be doing – if we all still shall be – this time next year.” 

She writes that her friends, in an effort to help, “counselled patience and endurance; time, they told me with maddening unanimity, would heal.  I resented the suggestion bitterly; I could not believe it, and did not even want it to be true.  If time did heal I should not have kept faith with Roland, I thought, clinging assiduously to my pain, for I did not then know that if the living are to be of any use in this world, they must always break faith with the dead.” 

It would be interesting to know what John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields” would have responded.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Prayer from the Trenches

Cyril William Winterbotham
Shortly after recovering from emergency surgery to remove his appendix, Cyril Winterbotham, a young barrister from the Cotswolds, joined the 1st/5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in September of 1915.  Among the men of his battalion, he had a reputation for being “almost recklessly brave.”  And yet his mother described him as “essentially a man of peace” who “had a horror of war and bloodshed, but when the call came, he did not hesitate – every other feeling gave way to the desire to serve his country, and to deliver the oppressed.” 

Winterbotham’s own description of a spring day on the Western Front allows us to see how both accounts of his personality were likely accurate:

It is a strange sight, this firing line.  Imagine two untidy lines of sandbags, looking more like rubbish heaps in the distance and between them straggling lines of wire on rough poles at all sorts of angles with a dead cow here and there and odd articles scattered about.  Then dotted about are ruined houses with tileless roofs and broken walls standing in the remains of their gardens.  Over all, absolutely no sign of life or movement. 

I sat and looked round on Sunday morning.  An aeroplane was being shelled up above and the sky was dotted with little white puffs of smoke.  I couldn’t help trying to reconstruct the scene in peace and imagine all the roofs on and all the mess cleaned up…Waller and I remarked simultaneously that the whole thing is preposterous nonsense and that men ought to leave each other in peace to enjoy the weather and, I added, go fishing.  After which we went off to try and spot a sniper and if possible put a bullet in him. 
--From The Soldier’s War: The Great War through Veteran’s Eyes (Richard van Emden)

Winterbotham wrote two poems while serving on the Western Front.  His “Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” admits to the lonely fear and darkness of Christmas in war time, and yet looks to the hope of the Incarnation and Christ’s comforting presence, promised to even the most battle-hardened of men. 

A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches

Not yet for us may Christmas bring
Good-will to men, and peace;
In our dark sky no angels sing,
Not yet the great release
For men, when war shall cease.

So must the guns our carols make,
Our gifts must bullets be,
For us no Christmas bells shall wake;
These ruined homes shall see
No Christmas revelry.

In hardened hearts we fain would greet
The Babe at Christmas born,
But lo, He comes with pierced feet,
Wearing a crown of thorn,-
His side a spear has torn.

For tired eyes are all too dim,
Our hearts too full of pain,
Our ears too deaf to hear the hymn
Which angels sing in vain,
'The Christ is born again.'

O Jesus, pitiful, draw near,
That even we may see
The Little Child who knew not fear;
Thus would we picture Thee
Unmarred by agony.

O'er death and pain triumphant yet
Bid Thou Thy harpers play,
That we may hear them, and forget
Sorrow and all dismay,
And welcome Thee to stay
With us on Christmas Day. 

The poem is honest about the cruel irony of being ordered to wage war at Christmas.  After the 1914 Christmas Truce, generals on both sides of the battle lines made certain that fraternization would not occur again.  The poem’s opening stanza bleakly states that there will be no peace, no goodwill, and no angel’s song on the Western Front in 1915.  The only songs will be the roar of the guns accompanied by the whistles of the shells; the only gifts will be bullets.

Exhaustion and pain have so numbed the men that they are unable to fathom the news of a holy child’s birth.  The “unmarred” Christ child is a stranger, and yet the men are able to draw near to Christ in agony, his body pitifully mutilated with wounds, his soul wrenched by agony. Praying to the crucified Christ, the hardened soldiers plead for assistance “That even we may see/The Little Child who knew not fear.”

This prayer from the trenches does not ask for an end to the war, but rather for Christ’s presence in the darkest of places, “O’er death and pain triumphant yet,” and for His healing help that at least for one day, the men might forget “Sorrow and all dismay.” 

Cyril Winterbotham would not live to see Christmas 1916.  One of the missing of the Somme, he was killed on 27 August, 1916, near Ovillers, France when his battalion was ordered to attack a German trench.  Although the German position was taken, at least 15 men from the unit were killed, 10 of whose bodies were never recovered due to the continued pounding of heavy artillery on the battlefield.  Cyril Winterbotham’s name is listed on the Thiepval monument (Pier 5B), just one of the 73,335 British men commemorated there whose remains were never found nor identified. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Winter in wartime

Edith Nesbit
Edith Nesbit, the children’s author best known for her novel The Railway Children, wrote stories that combine realism and hardship with fantasy and magic.  Few know that she also wrote poems that communicate the emotional experiences of the First World War.  One of those poems, “In Hospital,” opens in springtime under the shadow of a hawthorn hedge. 

In Celtic folklore, the hawthorn is a magical tree that is sacred to the faeries.  In May, the hawthorn’s thorny branches are covered in white blooms, and the tree is often associated with courtship and romance. And yet the flowers smell like decaying flesh (the chemical component – trimethylamine – is the same), and it is considered unlucky to bring hawthorn branches inside the house, as evidenced in the rhyme

Hawthorn bloom and elder-flowers
Will fill a house with evil powers.

Beautiful flowers, sharp thorns, and the smell of death:  the hawthorn symbolizes the union of opposites. 

In Hospital

Under the shadow of a hawthorn brake,
Where bluebells draw the sky down to the wood,
Where, 'mid brown leaves, the primroses awake
And hidden violets smell of solitude;
Beneath green leaves bright-fluttered by the wing
Of fleeting, beautiful, immortal Spring,
I should have said, 'I love you,' and your eyes
Have said, 'I, too . . . ' The gods saw otherwise.

For this is winter, and the London streets
Are full of soldiers from that far, fierce fray
Where life knows death, and where poor glory meets
Full-face with shame, and weeps and turns away.
And in the broken, trampled foreign wood
Is horror, and the terrible scent of blood,
And love shines tremulous, like a drowning star,
Under the shadow of the wings of war.

                --Edith Nesbit, published in the Westminster Gazette, 11 Dec 1915

The poem’s two stanzas contrast the seasons of spring and winter to express how the war has utterly changed not only the natural world, but the lives of both men and women caught up in the bloody conflict. 

In the opening lines, the lovers meet under the shadow of a dense thicket, much like Sleeping Beauty’s hedge, while bluebells, primroses, and violets push up through the dead, brown leaves of the previous fall. The complexities of life and its irreconcilable opposites are also reflected in the description of Spring itself:  both fleeting and immortal.  Most importantly, the entire season of renewal is now overshadowed by regret – promises never made, emotions never expressed – what should have been.  

In the second stanza, London’s winter streets are thronged with soldiers headed to war, men home on leave, and the injured who bear the visible wounds of battle – those missing limbs and the men with disfiguring facial injuries.  The war is a “far, fierce fray” – as different and distant from the blossoming countryside woods as can be imagined.  There are woods in the war zone, but these, too, have been forever altered – “broken” and “trampled.” The forests of battle are not carpeted with fragrant and delicate flowers, but rather with mangled corpses:  scenes of horror and the smell of blood. 

And where have the wounded survivors been taken?  The poem is titled “In Hospital” and depicts the reunion of the springtime lovers in the sterile atmosphere of a medical ward.  It is here that “poor glory meets/ Full-face with shame, and weeps and turns away.”  Perhaps the wounded soldier is one of those known as “the men with the broken faces” – this would account for the poem’s references to shame, weeping, and the averted gaze, as well as explaining why only the man’s eyes can speak of his regret. 

“In Hospital” is where “love shines tremulous, like a drowning star.”  The metaphor of the last lines holds out only the faintest of hope for the future as we watch the light of love unsteadily sinking beneath the weight of a shadow, while war continues to soar on the wings of darkness.  

William Kearsey after 1917 shell explosion
William Kearsey, Australian soldier
William Kearsey after surgery

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gott and God

John Collings Squire
…But I'm not so think as you drunk I am
--“Ballade of Soporifice Absorption,” J.C. Squire, 1931

John Collings (“Jack”) Squire was a writer and literary editor known for his witty parodies – and for his expert knowledge of Stilton cheese.  His poetry of the First World War War has been almost wholly forgotten. 

Squire volunteered for military service in the war, but was rejected due to his poor eyesight.
In 1915, he published a short poem that, one-hundred years later, continues to speak to current wars and conflicts.    

The Dilemma

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout
"Gott strafe England!" and "God save the King!"
God this, God that, and God the other thing—
"Good God!" said God, "I've got my work cut out." 

In this poem, God listens as people of both the Allied and the Central Powers call on him to intervene on their behalf.  The second line of the poem leads with the German military slogan – translated as “May God punish England” – and concludes with the British national anthem “God save the King.”  All countries and all faiths invoke the name of the Almighty, for this, that, and “the other thing.”

Archie Surfleet, a private with the East Yorkshire Regiment, wrote in his diary, “Saw some fellows with a German helmet, quite a massive affair with a spread eagle and a scroll saying ‘Mitt Gott für Koenig und Faterland.’ [With God for King and Country].  Strikes me God must think we are a pack of fools: surely he can’t be on both sides.”  Private Surfleet also commented, “Not many of us are religious in the true sense of the word though a lot of us turn to God for help and comfort when we are afraid:  that does not make us religious.”*  

As Matthew Shaw, curator at the British Library explains, “The closeness of death made belief – and its opposite – a pressing issue for the millions of men serving on the front and for those left behind at home.” (Shaw’s article on faith, belief, and superstition in the war is worth a look).

By the close of Squire’s short poem, however, we feel the greatest sympathy for God.  Like a harassed parent who has been repeatedly pestered to referee between warring siblings, God knows better than anyone how hopeless his job is, given the immature obstinacy of the combatants. 

*Tommy Goes to War (p. 26), by Matthew Brown