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.


  1. Thank you for your link at the Roads to the Great War blog site, which brought me to your site and the Manning poem.

    1. Thank YOU for making the visit! I hope you enjoy some of the other forgotten poets of the war.