Monday, June 6, 2016

A Marching Cat

Soldier with kitten, Melbourne 1915
Australian War Memorial
Henry Newbolt’s “A Letter from the Front” is a poem for those who don’t particularly like poetry (it’s also a wonderful poem for cat-lovers). Without rhyme and regular meter, the poem is highly conversational. In fact, other than the line-breaks, it appears more as an actual letter and not a poem. Newbolt shares an entertaining and curious story and doesn’t attempt to affix a moral or explain the point.  Instead, the poem relates an anecdote and invites us to make of it what we will.

A Letter from the Front

I was out early to-day, spying about
From the top of a haystack—such a lovely morning—
And when I mounted again to canter back
I saw across a field in the broad sunlight
A young Gunner Subaltern, stalking along
Soldier with mascot
Illustrated War News, Vol. 7, London, 1918
With a rook-rifle held at the ready, and – would you believe it? –
A domestic cat, soberly marching beside him. 

So I laughed, and felt quite well disposed to the youngster,
And shouted out “the top of the morning” to him,
And wished him “Good sport!”—and then I remembered
My rank, and his, and what I ought to be doing:
And I rode nearer, and added, “I can only suppose
You have not seen the Commander-in-Chief’s order
Forbidding English officers to annoy their Allies
By hunting and shooting.”
              But he stood and saluted
And said earnestly, “I beg your pardon, Sir,
I was only going out to shoot a sparrow
To feed my cat with.” 
              So there was the whole picture,
The lovely early morning, the occasional shell
Screeching and scattering past us, the empty landscape,--
Empty, except for the young Gunner saluting,
And the cat, anxiously watching his every movement. 

I may be wrong, and I may have told it badly,
But it struck me as being extremely ludicrous.
                        --Henry Newbolt

It’s a simple tale:  in the midst of war, an officer rides out early on his horse, cantering across the fields and climbing haystacks for a better view of the terrain. As he is preparing to return to the lines, he spies a junior artillery officer artillery crossing the field in front of him, carrying a light rifle designed for shooting birds and accompanied by a house cat. The young soldier and his cat march together soberly, as if forming a small military parade. To see a man hunting with a cat in peace time might appear strange; during war and so close to the front, the scene is absurd and draws from the mounted officer a laugh and a casual greeting: “top of the morning,” and “Good sport!” 

For the moment, the war is forgotten in the “lovely early morning,” but perhaps one of the “occasional shells” that screeches and scatters past recalls the senior officer not only to his rank, but to his duty. He warns the young gunner of the Commander-in-Chief’s order that English officers have been forbidden to “annoy their Allies” by hunting. Earnestly, the young gunner salutes and explains he is only shooting sparrows with which to feed his cat. And as the poem states, “So there was the whole picture.” 

The last two lines of the poem are as strange as the story itself:  they comment that the writer “may be wrong” and may even have “told it badly.” Is the poem unfinished or carelessly crafted? All we are given is the letter writer’s personal opinion that the event was “extremely ludicrous.” We want to shake the author and demand, “What is the meaning of this?” -- and that’s the brilliance of the poem. War is absurd, and nearly everything that happens can only be understood as random and “extremely ludicrous.” 

Almost unbelievably, the jarring contrast between the empty fields of a serene early morning and the “occasional” death-dealing shells that screech and scatter past the men is casually accepted. Both soldiers have become so accustomed to death that the artillery fire is incidental and unremarkable, merely a counterpoint to birdsong. 

Gordon Highlanders (15th Division) with their pet cat "Martinpuich" [IWM]
It’s also highly ironic that the Commander-in-Chief’s order has made it a crime to shoot a sparrow while men are encouraged to kill as many German soldiers as they possibly can. Hunting and shooting that might “annoy” one’s allies is forbidden, while mowing down the enemy with machine gun fire is the duty of every good soldier.

And what of the cat? Soberly marching and anxiously watching, the cat is the only living being that seems to acknowledge the war. It’s estimated that 500,000 cats were sent to the trenches of the First World War.* They provided a valuable service in hunting the mice and rats that infested soldiers’ living quarters; they were used to detect gas; and they became beloved mascots and companions for the troops. Some cats were even credited with saving men’s lives (to read more about cats in the First World War, see this link).   

Henry Newbolt, the author of “Letter from the Front” is most often remembered for his “blind patriotism and poetic propaganda.”** His most famous poem, “Vitai Lampada,” compares battle to a competitive school sporting event. It’s refrain “Play up! play up! and play the game!” was used in World War I recruiting posters. But that poem was published in 1897, and Newbolt grew to dislike both the poem and the attention he received from it, saying on a 1923 speaking tour, “it's a kind of Frankenstein's Monster that I created thirty years ago." 

By 1917 when Newbolt published “Letter from the Front,” he had worked for nearly three years in the British government’s propaganda office.  Perhaps this free-verse poem reveals the emerging consciousness of a writer who, however briefly or obliquely, admits to the absurdity of modern warfare. 
**The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930, Meredith Martin.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks so much for reading and responding -- and for all you do to remember the women of the war.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting article ! We have a "animals during WW1" section in our (french) blog, written by our dog Ruby (with a little help from us) and we are currently researching about cats during WW1 (because the cat is jealous now).

    1. Dear Paule-Elise, I'd love to read Ruby's research on dogs in WWI if you'd be so kind as to send a link. And I fully agree with your cat: it is time for equal treatment on the critical role of felines in the war!

    2. Oh sorry, I thought the link would appear on my comment. So here it is :
      Come and say hi !

    3. Wonderful! I love Ruby's "hairy adventures" in search of the history of the poilu! :)

  3. I thought I had read so much about this war, but I always learn something new on your blog!