Thursday, December 15, 2016

On Earth, Peace

Over one-hundred years ago, on December 23rd, 1914, the British weekly periodical Punch published a Christmas poem for a nation at war. The anonymous poet dreamed of a return to happier times, pleading, “Take back the blood-stained year again, / Give us the Christmas that we know!”

On Earth -- Peace

Judge of the passionate hearts of men,
God of the wintry wind and snow,
Take back the blood-stained year again,
Give us the Christmas that we know!

No stir of wings sweeps softly by;
US Peace Poster, WWI-era
No angel comes with blinding light;
Beneath the wild and wintry sky
No shepherds watch their flocks tonight.

In the dull thunder of the wind
We hear the cruel guns afar,
But in the glowering heavens we find
No guiding, solitary star.

But lo! on this our Lord's birthday,
Lit by the glory whence she came,
Peace, like a warrior, stands at bay,
A swift, defiant, living flame!

Full-armed she stands in shining mail,
Erect, serene, unfaltering still,
Shod with a strength that cannot fail,
Strong with a fierce o'ermastering will.
 Where shattered homes and ruins be
She fights through dark and desperate days;
Beside the watchers on the sea
She guards the Channel's narrow ways.

Through iron hail and shattering shell,
Where the dull earth is stained with red,
Fearless she fronts the gates of Hell
And shields the unforgotten dead.

So stands she, with her all at stake,
And battles for her own dear life,
That by one victory she may make
For evermore an end of strife.

In this world at war, the comforting figures of the Nativity are nowhere to be found.  The angels are silent, the shepherds are absent, and the guiding star fails to appear in the bitterly cold night sky. Cyril Winterbotham in “A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” also described the quiet despair of men crouched in the wet, snowy trenches of the Western Front: “In our dark sky no angels sing….Our gifts must bullets be.” 

Yet in the poem a vision appears, breaking through the glowering heavens.  The defiant figure of Peace stands amidst the shattered ruins, a flaming crusader clad in shining armour. Like Joan of Arc, this woman warrior “fights through dark and desperate days.” Calm and confident in the midst of “iron hail and shattering shell,” Peace fiercely protects the unforgotten dead. But her cause is more noble than any military objective: she fights for everyone, for she aims to end all wars. 

This poem that begins with a wistful longing for happier Christmases of the past concludes with a dream of the most extravagant of gifts: world peace forever. To modern readers, the thought of eternal peace on earth is likely to seem as miraculous as that of the virgin birth. What the readers of Punch could not know was that the war that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914 would continue its bloody course for nearly another four years, costing over nine million lives.  By November of 1918, when Peace finally won the day, her arrival seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was a peace that did not last.

Although the poem was published anonymously in Punch, an on-line source recently asserted that it was written by a British officer who was present at the 1914 Christmas Truce.  The claim, however, is unverified, and as “On Earth—Peace” was published in London on December 23rd –
before the Christmas Truce occurred –  this seems unlikely. A more probable author is the Canadian poet of the Laurentians, F.G. Scott, who volunteered in August of 1914 for overseas service as a military chaplain. Scott is named as the author of the poem by Kate Luard in her memoir Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, published in 1915. Luard’s diary provides a sobering glimpse of Christmas on the Western Front: 

Xmas Eve, 1914_-- And no fire and no chauffage [heating], and cotton frocks; funny life, isn't it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of "'ome, 'long o' Mother," --British, Germans, French, and Russians …. 
Xmas Day, 1914 -- And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. 

Kate Luard and Chaplain F.G. Scott survived the war, but Scott’s son Henry Hutton Smith was killed during the battle of the Somme. The world still awaits the coming of Peace eternal. 
German Christmas Card, WWI

Bethlehem 1915

German Christmas card, 1915

What does the holy season of Christmas have to do with war? Egbert Sandford’s poem “At Bethlehem—1915” re-imagines the nativity in ways more typically found in a gothic horror film or a war propagandist’s appeal. We are invited to see the nativity with fresh eyes: it is no less than a cataclysmic invasion.

British Christmas card, 1915
Courtesy of the National Archives
At Bethlehem—1915.
The travellers are astir—
        Bearing frowns for incense,
Scorns for myrrh.

War flings its sign afar—
        There’s blood upon the Manger,
Blood upon the Star.

Dear Lord:
        Who fain would find the Saviour
Find the Sword.
            --E.T. Sandford

Just where is the Prince of Peace in this manger scene? The three kings have been elbowed aside by angry, scornful troops moving towards battle, and the glow of glory from above has been smeared with blood. Is the poem’s last verse a prayer to the Lord or a challenge to his people? What might it mean to search for the Christ-child with a sword or to find deadly weapons in Bethlehem’s stable?

Sandford, a government-employed warehouse manager at Plymouth, described himself as “just an ordinary working man.” His chief literary influences were the poets William Blake and Francis Thompson, and he credited “a literary class at Blackheath” for having given him the encouragement and inspiration to write. Sandford asserted that the primary aim of his poetry was to “take the common things of life and weave them into song.”* His poem “Bethlehem—1915” may be one of the most unusual Christmas carols ever composed.
*From the introduction to his book Brookdown & Other Poems, 1916. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent 1916

British Christmas card, 1918

Christmas has always been a time for dreams, whether of angelic hosts, sugar plums, or a softly drifting snow. But at Christmas, what hopes fill the dreams of soldiers at war, and what are the deepest longings of their loved ones who wait?  

By December of 1916, the Great War was entering its third year, and soldiers and civilians alike were reeling after the losses at Verdun and the Somme (the battles' casualties exceeded two million men). In her poem “Advent, 1916,” Eva Dobell, a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse (VAD), dreams not of an infant in the manger, but of Christ’s return to the “grim trenches” and “shell-seared plain” of the First World War.

Advent, 1916
 Christ of the Trenches, Neuve Chapelle postcard
I dreamt last night Christ came to earth again
To bless His own. My soul from place to place
On her dream-quest, sped, seeking for His face
Through temple and town and lovely land, in vain.
Then came I to a place where death and pain
Had made of God's sweet world a waste forlorn,
With shattered trees and meadows gashed and torn,
Where the grim trenches scarred the shell-seared plain.

And through that Golgotha of blood and clay,
Where watchers cursed the sick dawn, heavy-eyed,
There (in my dream) Christ passed upon His way,
Where His cross marks their nameless graves who died
Slain for the world's salvation, where all day
For others' sake strong men are crucified.

                        --Eva Dobell

The poet dreams not of peace, but of presence. There appears the dull realization that the war will drag on and that men will continue to be sacrificed, “all day / For others’ sake.” The waste is appalling, and even the dawn is sickened and pale.  

Yet in the midst of death and suffering, Christ comes again to walk through meadows “gashed and torn.” He lingers and passes crosses that mark the nameless dead as His own. The humble carpenter who died a bloody death at Golgotha has not forgotten the strong men who now lie row upon row in the heavy clay, and He comes to bless them. The promise He made to his ragged band of disciples on a mountain in Galilee holds true from Gallipoli to Galacia, from Mametz to the Marne: “and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

Dobell donated a portion of the sales proceeds of her volume of poetry A Bunch of Cotswold Grasses to St. Martin’s Gloucestershire Red Cross Hospital for Disabled Soldiers. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sing me to sleep

“The Tommy is a singing soldier,” wrote Patrick MacGill in the Preface to his 1917 volume of poetry, Soldier Songs. An Irishman serving with the London Irish Rifles, MacGill continued,

The soldiers have songs of their own, songs of the march, the trench, the billet and battle. Their origin is lost; the songs have arisen like old folktales, spontaneous choruses that voice the moods of a moment and of many moments which are monotonously alike. Most of the verse is of no import; the crowd has no sense of poetic values; it is the singing alone which gives expression to the soldier’s soul.

His poem “A Lament” (sometimes titled “A Lament from the Trenches”) is one such whimsical, melancholy expression.

A Lament
(The Ritz-Loos Salient.)

I wish the sea was not so wide
            That parts me from my love;
I wish the things men do below
            Were known to God above.
I wish that I were back again
            In the glens of Donegal,
They’ll call me a coward if I return
            But a hero if I fall.

“Is it better to be a living coward,
            Or thrice a hero dead?”
“It’s better to go to sleep, m’lad,”
The colour-sergeant said.

Loneliness permeates the poem’s first stanza. As in a tale of folklore and magic, a man makes three wishes, and they reveal a soldier who is heartsick, homesick, and abandoned by God.   Separated from his beloved, detached from a distant God, and impossibly remote from the landscape of his childhood, the soldier is alone with the realization that there is no winning his war.  If he returns to his village, he will be labeled a coward; respect and honour can be achieved only with his death.

Caught on the horns of the dilemma, he turns to his commanding officer and asks whether it is better to live as a coward or die as a hero. The colour-sergeant responds with affection, addressing the young man as “m’lad,” but avoiding the unanswerable question. Instead, with calm and good sense that seem almost paternal,* the sergeant urges the young soldier to take one of the few comforts available in the trenches: to sleep.

Close bonds of comradeship caused many of the soldiers of the First World War to reflect, without irony, that their experiences in combat were some of the happiest of their lives. Shortly before his death, Wilfred Owen wrote his mother,

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away.  And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench.  It is a great life….I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so find as surround us here.

Edgar Jones, in “The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War,” asserts, “The intensity of the soldiers’ experience was often so great that it is difficult to imagine anything in civilian life that came anywhere close to these bonds.” 

In the Preface to Soldier Songs, Patrick MacGill recalls another lyric that “echoed in billets and dug-outs from Le Harve to the Somme.” It is a lullaby of sorts, a gently ironic reminder of the bonds of comradeship that got men through the war.

Sing Me to Sleep

Sing me to sleep where bullets fall,
Let me forget the war and all;
Damp is my dug-out, cold my feet,
Nothing but bully and biscuits to eat.
Over the sandbag helmets you’ll find
Corpses in front and corpses behind.

Far, far from Ypres I long to be
Where German snipers can’t get at me,
Think of me crouching where the worms creep,
Waiting for the sergeant to sing me to sleep.

Sing me to sleep in some old shed,
The rats all running around my head,
Stretched out upon my waterproof,
Dodging the raindrops through the roof,
Dreaming of home and nights in the West,
Somebody’s overseas boots on my chest.
*For more on the father-son bond in war, see Lieutenant E.A. Mackintosh’s poem “In Memoriam”; it speaks eloquently about the “fifty sons” under his command.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Shot at Dawn Memorial, Staffordshire UK
Photo by Dave Green.jpg
Shot at Dawn: in the First World War, 306 men who fought with the British Army were executed, typically by men in their own unit, after court martials found them guilty of desertion or other acts of cowardice. It is estimated that the French executed over 600 of its soldiers for cowardice (many think this number is actually much higher, due to the French practice of decimation—shooting every 10th man in units that mutinied or refused orders to attack). Italians executed an estimated 750 men; Austria-Hungary shot over 1,100 of their soldiers, and the Germany Army executed 48 of their own men during the Great War.*

It is now believed that many of the men convicted of desertion, cowardice, and refusing to follow military orders suffered from shell-shock or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but at the time of these executions, military authorities were nearly always more concerned about setting an example and maintaining discipline than they were about attending to the specifics of individual cases.   

Herbert Read was a Yorkshire farmer’s son whose studies at the University of Leeds were interrupted by the war.  Serving in France and Belgium with the Yorkshire Regiment, Read’s conduct in battle earned him the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order, but he was no stranger to fear. In his posthumously published essay "The Cult of Sincerity,Read writes,

I have never written about the real horror of fighting, which is not death nor the fear of mutilation, discomfort or filth, but a psychopathic state of hallucination in which the world becomes unreal and you no longer know whether your experience is valid—in other words, whether you are any longer sane. 

In 1919, shortly after the war had ended, Herbert Read published Naked Warriors, a collection of poems he had written during the war.  The poem “Fear” is one of six short imagist poems collected under the title “The Scene of War.”

III.  Fear

Fear is a wave
Beating through the air
And on taut nerves impingeing
Till there it wins
Vibrating chords.

All goes well
So long as you tune the instrument
To simulate composure.

(So you will become
A gallant gentleman.)

But when the strings are broken . . . .
Then you will grovel on the earth
And your rabbit eyes
Will fill with the fragments of your shattered soul.
                        --Herbert Read

Read’s poem uses the metaphor of music and sound to let us feel the horrors of shell shock.  Fear is compared to an eroding wave that beats against the shore or to a concussive blast of sound that hammers at the skull.  It strikes at nerves stretched to the breaking point until they resonate with an unholy, dissonant music.  And once tuned to fear, the mind vibrates with panic and horror until its strings snap.

A broken thing, the man trapped in the siren song of fear is reduced to an animal-like state. He crouches close to the earth, trembling with terror and blinded to all but his own shattered self.

The only hope in holding out against the beating wave of fear is to “simulate composure,” to pretend to a courage one cannot feel, to fake a calm that is patently absurd in a situation fraught with peril. With quiet irony, the poem reveals that if a man's acting is good enough, then he will be proclaimed “a gallant gentleman,” chivalrously brave and full of noble daring.   
Herbert Read

According to Read’s biographer David Goodway, “Survival, as he [Read] said elsewhere, came through the members of a community being with each other in real communion….His concern to show courage was not just so as to prove himself, but because that quality was essential for the survival and success of the whole group.  Read was obsessively determined not to betray his own men through cowardice” (34). 

In the Preface to his 1919 poetry collection, Read sharply rebuked anyone who might seek to romanticize the war or to ignore the toll it had taken on men who had endured the unimaginable:

We, who in manhood’s dawn have been compelled to care not a damn for life or death, now care less still for the convention of glory and the intellectual apologies for what can never be to us other than a riot of ghastliness and horror, of inhumanity and negation.” 

*Further research on executions in the First World War can be found in Steven R. Welch’s article “Military Justice” in the online 1914-1918 encyclopedia.