Tuesday, July 26, 2016

December of July

Streatley Mill at Sunset, 1859
George Price Boyce

Summer: the season of fireflies, porch swings, day lilies, and beach strolls.  And yet somewhere even now, a war is raging.

One-hundred years ago, during the summer of 1916, a volunteer nurse in the First World War wrote of the enormous gulf that separated the beauty of summer in the English countryside from the carnage that British troops were experiencing at the battle of the Somme.

 July, 1916

Here in happy England the fields are steeped in quiet,
Saving for larks’ song and drone of bumble bees;
The deep lanes are decked with roses all a-riot,
With bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries.
O here a maid would linger to hear the blackbird fluting,
And here a lad might pause by wind-berippled wheat,
The lovers in the bat’s light would hear the brown owl hooting,
A Copse, Evening, 1918
A.Y. Jackson 
Before the latticed lights of home recalled their lagging feet.

But over there in France, the grass is torn and trodden,
Our pastures grow moon daisies, but theirs are strewn with lead.
The fertile, kindly fields are harassed and blood-sodden,
The sheaves they bear for harvesting will be our garnered dead.

But there the lads of England, in peril of advancing,
Have laid their splendid lives down, ungrudging of the cost;
The record—just their names here—means a moment’s careless glancing,
But who can tell the promise, the fulfilment of our lost?

Here in happy England the Summer pours her treasure
Of grasses, of flowers before our heedless feet.
The swallow-haunted streams meander at their pleasure
Through loosestrife and rushes and plumed meadow-sweet.
Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept for us our England inviolate, defended,
But by their passing made for us December of July?
-Winifred Mabel Letts

The poem opens in rural England.  Peace settles over the fields and is broken only by birdsong and “the drone of bumble bees,” while just across the English Channel, the drone is that of incoming shells and aeroplane bombing runs.  Sunken English lanes bloom with roses, a stark contrast to the muddy French trenches littered with bodies of the dead.

The tragedy of the Somme is almost unimaginable, but how much more was it so for those hundreds of miles from the front lines? Awash in the poetry of flowers (“bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries”), those in England who waited for word of their loved ones could barely begin to comprehend the barren, blasted landscape of the Western Front.

Winifred Lett’s poem pays homage to the men who fought on the Somme; they left their “golden heritage,” choosing to “put the Summer by.” For some soldiers, the choice was deliberate and measured; others found themselves caught up in and swept along by the Great War; many were conscripts forced to join the colours. The poem reminds us that each of them surrendered the lush promise of Summer overbrimming with life, exchanging it for the task of keeping England “inviolate.”

The poem strikes a note of deep irony, however, as it comments that with their very sacrifice, the deaths of the men who laid down their "splendid lives" brought to England the bitter chill of December.  The desolation of the battlefields travelled across the English Channel, arriving with the unfathomably long lists of the missing, wounded, and dead of the Somme.  Striking deep into the heart of the summer countryside of rural England, July of 1916 was barren, bleak, and dark.
Winifred Mabel Letts

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Clockwork toys

Frederic Manning
It began in August of 1914 and was supposed to be over by Christmas of that year, but the Great War proved to be cruelly obstinate. In peacetime, the rural French village of Guillemont was home to less than one-hundred farmers and their families. By the summer of 1916,  the small hamlet was to become an object lesson on the relentless character of the conflict.

Guillemont before the war
Located in the Somme region, Guillemont was one of the key military objectives for Allied forces during the months’ long Battle of the Somme. From July to early September of 1916, repeated attacks were made on the village. The British launched 90 attacks in the area, while the Germans responded with 72 counter-attacks. Assaults were largely uncoordinated and unsupported, resulting in over 300,000 combined casualties, and heavy rains turned the area into a swamp, adding to the misery of the men.

Before the war, Australian writer Frederic Manning had emigrated to England, where he joined a literary circle that included Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme, and Richard Aldington. In October of 1915, Manning enlisted in the British Army.  He served at the Somme, and his poem "Relieved" describes the exhaustion produced by a war that some now feared might never end.


We are weary and silent;
There is only the rhythm of marching feet;
A Battery Shelled, Percy Wyndham Lewis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2747)
Though we move tranced we keep it,
As clockwork toys.

But each man is alone in this multitude;
We know not the world in which we move,
Seeing not the dawn, earth pale and shadowy,
Level lands of tenuous grays and greens,
For our eyeballs have been seared with fire.

Only we have our secret thoughts,
Our sense floats out from us delicately apprehensive
To the very fringes of our being,
Where light drowns.
--Frederic Manning

Like wind-up toys, soldiers exhaustedly march in a trance-like state. In this modern industrial war, the men exist in a pale world of grays and muted tones, much like that of the faded photographs by which we now remember them.

Only two flares of light illuminate this shadow world: the fire that has seared the soldiers' eyeballs and the light that drowns at the “very fringes” of their being. The war has cauterized the men's vision, and they apprehensively fumble and “delicately” grasp at reality. Like the blind, troops stumble through darkness.

Although “relieved” (the title of the poem plays on the double meaning of the word, both released from duty and freed from anxiety), each man has learned that he “is alone in this multitude.” The secret thoughts and haunted memories that each soldier harbors threaten to extinguish any brightness that the future might possibly bring.  Amos William Mayse, a Canadian soldier, wrote to his wife,  "I am sure that if spared, I shall wake often with the horror of it all before me & I shall not want to talk much about it either."

The first recorded use of the verb “soldier on” (to doggedly persevere in difficult circumstances) does not occur until 1954, but the infantrymen of the First World War lived out the sense of the idiom. In a letter written in September of 1916 after the village of Guillemont had finally been taken, British officer P.F. Story wrote, “Guillemont was blotted right out, not one brick standing on another – nothing but a sea of crump holes of all sorts and sizes.”*

And yet the war seemed no closer to ending: the Germans fell back and refortified another village, and so it began again.
*Gerald Giddon, Somme 1916: A Battlefield Companion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Devil's Grindstone

Recruiting Poster, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 2763)
One of the common myths of the First World War is that nearly all women were strong supporters of the conflict. Contributing to the misunderstanding is the fact that one of the best-known female war poets is Jessie Pope.  A BBC Magazine article has described Pope as “the villain of the war” and “the war poet students love to hate.”  Her often-studied poem, “Who’s for the Game,” encourages men to join the army as it chides, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/Than lie low and be out of the fun?”*

Yet while there were women writers who supported the war, many others did not. Nosheen Khan, in Women’s Poetry of the First World War, observes that “women were writing protest poetry before Sassoon and Owen” (15). The poem that prompts Khan’s assertion is Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” published in 1916.

He Went for a Soldier

He marched away with a blithe young score of him
With the first volunteers,
Clear-eyed and clean and sound to the core of him,
Blushing under the cheers.
They were fine, new flags that swung a-flying there,
Oh, the pretty girls he glimpsed a-crying there,
Pelting him with pinks and with roses --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Not very clear in the kind young heart of him
What the fuss was about,
But the flowers and the flags seemed part of him --
The music drowned his doubt.
It's a fine, brave sight they were a-coming there
To the gay, bold tune they kept a-drumming there,
While the boasting fifes shrilled jauntily --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Soon he is one with the blinding smoke of it --
Volley and curse and groan:
Then he has done with the knightly joke of it --
It's rending flesh and bone.
Zonnebeke, by William Orpen
©Tate London T07694
There are pain-crazed animals a-shrieking there
And a warm blood stench that is a-reeking there;
He fights like a rat in a corner --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

There he lies now, like a ghoulish score of him,
Left on the field for dead:
The ground all round is smeared with the gore of him
Even the leaves are red.
The Thing that was Billy lies a-dying there,
Writhing and a-twisting and a-crying there;
A sickening sun grins down on him --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Still not quite clear in the poor wrung heart of him
What the fuss was about,
See where he lies -- or a ghastly part of him --
While life is oozing out:
There are loathsome things he sees a-crawling there;
There are hoarse-voiced crows he hears a-calling there,
Eager for the foul feast spread for them --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

How much longer, oh Lord, shall we bear it all?
How many more red years?
Story it and glory it and share it all,
In seas of blood and tears?
They are braggart attitudes we've worn so long;
They are tinsel platitudes we've sworn so long --
We who have turned the Devil's Grindstone,
Borne with the hell called War!
          - Ruth Comfort Mitchell

The poem begins with the cheerful musicality of a ballad: blithe, bonny, and “blushing under the cheers,” Billy and scores of other eager young recruits march off to war.  Flags wave in celebration, and young women gaily toss flowers as they encourage the departing soldiers. Although Billy himself is not very clear as to why men are fighting, the shrill notes of the marching band are louder than his doubts.

With all the suddenness of Billy’s own initiation into the horrors of war, the poem’s third stanza plunges into a gruesome realm.  No more a “knightly joke,” the war surrounds the boy soldier until he is one with the smoke and stench, reduced to an animal-like state as he fights for survival “like a rat in a corner.” The fourth stanza is a grotesque parody of the first, as Billy again joins scores of other men, though now they lie mutilated and left for dead in a field “smeared with the gore” of their injuries.

Billy the Soldier Boy never reaches manhood; this ironic hero’s journey begins in naïve adolescence, plunges into bestial fear, and concludes as he writhes in No Man’s Land, a ghastly, torn Thing.  The repeated exuberant refrain of “Billy, the Soldier Boy!” rings darkly satirical, and the sing-song rhyme and meter of the ballad jarringly contrast with the grim imagery.

The poem’s final stanza delivers a bitter condemnation of the “tinsel platitudes” and “braggart attitudes” that have fed the war. These attitudes and platitudes provide the energy that is needed to turn “the Devil’s Grindstone,” until the years run red with the blood of Billy the Soldier Boy and the hundreds of thousands like him.

Ruth Comfort Mitchell, the author of “He Went for a Soldier,” was an American writer born in California in 1882.  Married to Sanborn Young (who would become a California Senator in 1925), Mitchell later became involved in conservative organizations. Her best-known novel, Of Human Kindness, is a defense of gentleman farmers that was written in response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Mitchell’s anti-war anger was voiced before America entered the First World War: it is likely that censorship would have prevented the poem’s publication after April of 1917.**
Ruth Comfort Mitchell
*Even Jessie Pope's views of the war are more nuanced than the unwavering pro-war view that is typically ascribed to her.  A future post on this blog will share one of her lesser-known poems.
**An interesting companion poem is Mary Gilmore’s “War.”  Although it appeared in The Bulletin April 5, 1917 (titled “The Mother”), this bitter anti-war poem was not included in any of Gilmore's published books of poetry until 1932.

Friday, July 8, 2016

After the Offensive

Theipval 1917, William Orpen
©Imperial War Museum ART2377
War statistics can seem numbingly abstract: what does it mean that an estimated thirty-five million people were killed or wounded in the First World War?  In the conflict that lasted four years and three months, 230 soldiers died every hour that the war continued, and one out of every three British soldiers who was mobilized was a casualty of the war.*

The Battle of the Somme lasted for 4 months and 18 days, from July 1, 1916 – November 18, 1916.  During that time, the British Army lost 481,842 men, while French casualties numbered over 250,000 and German over 235,000.  The first day of the Somme offensive was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army: British troops suffered 57,470 casualties, and 19,240 British men died.

What was it like to survive the Somme? How did men at the Front make sense of the staggering numbers of dead and wounded?  Theodore van Beek was a junior artillery officer with the Royal Artists; his poem “After the Offensive” expresses the shock and loss of those who are left to soldier on. 

After the Offensive
We Are Making a New World, Paul Nash
©Imperial War Museum ART1146

This is the end of it, this the cold silence
Succeeding the violence
That rioted here.
This is the end of it  – grim and austere.

This is the end of it – where the tide spread,
Runnels of blood
Debris of dead;
This is the end of it:  ebb follows flood.

Waves of strong men
That will surge not again,
Scattered and riven
You lie, and you rot;
What have you not given?
And what – have you got?
                        Theodore H. van Beek

After the terrific noise of the bombardment have ceased, after the shrill whistles signaling the order to attack have sounded, after the rattle of machine gun fire has finally ended– there remains only grim silence.  The spare three-word lines and clipped, emotionless description reflect a world that has been stripped of patriotic rhetoric and glory.  The cold of the silence mirrors the chilled, lifeless bodies strewn across the fields. 

Like a wave that has crashed against the shore at its high mark, the men also have surged forward without effect and are forced to retreat after dissipating their energy. The imagery evokes Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”:  the "waves of strong men" recall Arnold's waves and the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” as they sound a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” and faith retreats down “the naked shingles of the world.” 

Perhaps most poignantly, the last stanza of van Beek's poem emphasizes the way in which the dead men are scattered, violently torn both from life and from their comrades. Survivors must live with the knowledge that the men they served with and loved must be left to rot, many without known graves.

The poem doesn’t offer comforting platitudes, but instead concludes with rhetorical questions: could anyone have done any more?  And what was the value of an attack in which so much was given – and so very little was “got”?

Given the poem’s strong anti-war sentiment and its challenge to military authority, it is not surprising that “After the Offensive” was not published until well after the war had ended (it appeared in April of 1919 in the English Republic). However, at some point during the war, van Beek, attired in his military uniform, stood in London and publicly recited his anti-war poetry.  For this act, he was “severely reprimanded.”** His public reading of the poem was another kind of heroic offensive.
Percy Smith, Death Marches
*Statistics are taken from Scott Addington’s 2014 book, The Great War 100: The First World War in Infographics. 
**From “Biographical Notes” in Dominic Hibberd and John Onions' The Winter of the World (2008).