Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gramophone Tunes

Popular music provided the soundtrack of the First World War.  Troops sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as they marched toward rail stations that would take them far from their homes; mothers, wives, and sweethearts promised to “Keep the Home Fires Burning”; and whether comic or idealistic, many tunes encouraged soldiers to laugh at the war, from “Pack up Your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag” to “Mademoiselle from Armentieres.”

The recently invented portable phonograph brought the melodies of the music halls into hospitals crowded with wounded and dying men.  Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse Vera Britain wrote of the “blaring, blatant gramophones” that mixed with “people shouting or groaning after an operation.” She noted that “though the men found them consoling—perhaps because they subdued more sinister noises—they seemed to me to add a strident grotesqueness to the cold, dark evenings of hurry and pain” (Testament of Youth, 195-196).

Eva Dobell, a young woman from Gloucestershire, served for over three years as a VAD hospital nurse. Her poem “Gramophone Tunes” captures the dissonance between the music and the maimed men.

Gramophone Tunes

Through the long ward the gramophone
Grinds out its nasal melodies:
Where did you get that girl?” it shrills.
The patients listen at their ease,
Through clouds of strong tobacco-smoke:
The gramophone can always please.

The Welsh boy has it by his bed,
(He’s lame—one leg was blown away.)
He’ll lie propped up with pillows there,
And wind the handle half the day.
His neighbor, with the shattered arm,
Picks out the records he must play.

Jock with his crutches beats the time;
The gunner, with his head close-bound,
Listens with puzzled, patient smile:
(Shell-shock—he cannot hear a sound.)
The others join in from their beds,
And send the chorus rolling round.

Somehow for me these common tunes
Can never sound the same again:
They’ve magic now to thrill my heart
And bring before me, clear and plain,
Man that is master of his flesh,
And has the laugh of death and pain.
--Eva Dobell

The gramophone crank is turned and popular music fills the hospital ward. The song alluded to in the poem “Where did you get that girl,” was a comic tune that charted at #6 in 1913.  The song’s lyrics tell of a lonely lad whose luck turns, causing all who meet him to exclaim,

Where did you get that girl? Oh! you lucky devil!
Where did you get that girl? Tell me on the level!
Have you ever kissed her? If she has a sister
Lead me, lead me, lead me to her mister!*

Yet the gramophone in the hospital shrilly “grinds out” the music – underscoring the forced nature of the gaiety. There’s a bitter irony in the fact that the men who sing about the “lucky devil” who got the girl have themselves suffered life-changing wounds, both mental and physical, that may doom them to unimaginable loneliness.  With touching tenderness, the poem catalogues the men and their injuries: the Welsh boy with the amputated leg, the soldier with a shattered arm, and the shell-shocked man with “a puzzled, patient smile” who “cannot hear a sound.” These soldiers are free to “listen at their ease,” but it is because they are unable to either walk, work, or return home.

And yet the music joins the men; in a spirit of friendly cooperation, the legless boy and one-armed man help one another to select the tunes and crank the player, while others on the ward join in sending the chorus “rolling round.”

Even if they survive, the poem makes it clear that the war has changed these men forever. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “They” makes a similar point: “When the boys come back/They will not be the same.” However, the last stanza of Dobell’s poem reminds us that the lives of women were also profoundly altered by the First World War.  Everyone and everything has been changed forever.

Even the popular music of the day now echoes with the suffering and loss of the war.  For those working in or confined to hospitals, music hall songs have become associated with the smell of gas gangrene and disinfectant, and yet the tunes will also be forever associated with the courage of men who struggled to master their flesh, to laugh and even sing while surrounded by death and pain.

*You can listen to an original recording of "Where did you get that girl" by clicking on the link in the poem.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cricket in war time

British troops play cricket, WWI

In 1892, Henry Newbolt wrote a poem comparing the violence of war with school sport:

The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,

"Play up! play up! and play the game!" 

Cricket and Grenade Throwing, Geoffrey Stobie
(I much prefer Newbolt’s poem about a marching cat, but that’s not strictly relevant to this post). 

At the time of the First World War, it was commonly believed that experience and ability in athletics would translate directly to success on the battlefield. (Americans were reputed to be better than the French at tossing grenades, due to Americans' love of baseball). The British Army encouraged sporting competitions to improve troops’ physical fitness, boost morale, and strengthen bonds between officers and their men. 

Perhaps the most English of sports is cricket, and so it’s not surprising that numerous First World War poems make reference to the game.  

Cricket: The Catch

Rossall School, General View from the Cricket Field, W.J. Allingham 
Whizzing, fierce, it came
Down the summer air,
Burning like a flame
On my fingers bare,
And it brought to me
As swift - a memory.
Happy days long dead
Clear I saw once more.
Childhood that is fled:-
Rossall on the shore,
Where the sea sobs wild
Like a homesick child.
Oh, the blue bird's fled!
Never man can follow.
Yet at times instead
Comes this scarlet swallow,
Bearing on its wings
(Where it skims and dips,
Gleaming through the slips)
Sweet Time - strangled things.
--Frederick William Harvey

As the poem opens, a projectile – shell, shrapnel, or grenade – hurtles toward a soldier. For a heartbeat, the fiercely whizzing weapon recalls the youthful memory of a school cricket game played near the English shore.  Time is suspended as gunfire mimics the crack of the bat, and the soldier flashes back to a leisurely afternoon of fair play within earshot of the sea. 
"We dropped bombs on a British formation, causing the
troops to disperse and run about in a panic-stricken
(Punch cartoon, 4 July 1917)
But just as quickly comes the realization that childhood has ended and the blue bird, associated with light-hearted happiness, has fled.  War is a deadly game played in earnest.  

Death rains down from the sky, and the incoming missile is imagined as a blood-red swallow that “skims and dips” as it gleams past men. The soldiers, like cricket fielders, hope to make a play that will put their opponent out of the game. 

In the moments before the explosion, seconds are drawn out.  There's a beauty even in the arc of the incoming weapon, for each bomb seeking its human target carries with it both “Sweet Time” and “strangled things.”  The sweetness of time is magnified for those who know that each moment may be their last, yet living under the threat of imminent death also constricts thought and action, strangling and suffocating the men.   

While the poem nostalgically remembers the past, it exists in suspended time as it anticipates what will happen in the next moments.  The soldier longs both for the past and for a future, but the poem ends before the explosion.  All  possibilities  remain open: perhaps the soldier survives, thinking to himself, that was a close one; perhaps he is struck and falls under the searing pain of a wound; or perhaps his life ends in the silence left at the close of the poem.  Sweet Time or strangled things?  We are left to imagine the attempted cricket catch and the outcome of the game.  

F.W. Harvey, the “Laureate of Gloucestershire,” typically wrote light-hearted poems (the best known being “Ducks”).  He was a key contributor to the first British trench newspaper, the Fifth Gloucester Gazette, and a close friend of the soldier-poet-composer Ivor Gurney (Gurney would later set several of Harvey’s poems to music).  During a night reconnaissance mission on August 17, 1916, Harvey was captured by Germans and spent the remaining years of the war in prisoner camps, making several failed escape attempts.  He survived the war and returned to Gloucestershire, dying in 1957.  A memorial to him in Gloucestershire Cathedral reads, “He loved the vision of this world and found it good.”*

F.W. Harvey
*Lines from Harvey’s poem describing himself, “F.W.H: A Portrait.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Retreat from Mons
“The Great Retreat” is the name given to the forced march from Mons to the outskirts of Paris in late August and early September of 1914, the British Army’s longest retreat. The summer of 1914 was one of the hottest of the century, and the retreat was grueling and dangerous, as exhausted British troops attempted to escape the pursuing German Army. Men slept as they marched, some regiments covering nearly 250 miles in 13 days.  Describing the scene, historian John-Lewis Stempel wrote, “Some units lost all cohesion, some men lost all reason. One officer was so spooked he started firing his revolver at imaginary Germans in the street.”

The challenge of the war was not only to stay alive, but to remain sane.  While others would write of the tactics and topography of the retreat from Mons, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s short poem captures the interior landscapes of the mind.


Broken, bewildered by the long retreat
Across the stifling leagues of southern plain,

Across the scorching leagues of trampled grain,
Half-stunned, half-blinded, by the trudge of feet
And dusty smother of the August heat,
He dreamt of flowers in an English lane,
Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain—
All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet.

All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet—
The innocent names kept up a cool refrain—
All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet,

Chiming and tinkling in his aching brain,
Until he babbled like a child again—
"All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet."
            --Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Willow-herb (photo by Paul Lane)
The war has stripped these men of power and of sense.  Bewildered and dazed, the trained soldiers appear almost child-like as they march “half-stunned, half-blinded” in the stifling August heat. This is the retreat of the body. 

But there is also the retreat of the mind. Exhaustion and fear compel one man to escape into his imagination.  As he stumbles down the dusty roads of Belgium and France, he dreams of an English lane, “Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain.” The sing-song chanted names of herbs and flowers distracts from the misery of the present moment as it comforts with memories of home and the peace of the countryside. 

“All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet” -- like the refrain of a nursery rhyme or lullaby, the very sounds of the healing herbs and fragrant flowers calm and soothe. But no flight of the imagination could escape the actual toll of the retreat; over 15,000 men were casualties of the march, either captured, wounded, or killed.   

Today, the British Commonwealth Grave Commission invites visitors to travel the “Retreat from Mons Remembrance Trail” and learn of the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate the thousands of men who died on the Great Retreat.

Gibson created a different kind of memorial in “Retreat”; the poem also honors the memory of the men who “went ungrudgingly, and spent their all for us,” that we might “feel the heartbreak in the heart of things.”*
*These lines are from Gibson’s poem “Lament.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When will the war be by?

An estimated half-million Scots enlisted in the British army in the First World War; 125,000 of those men died, never to return home.  Perhaps the most popular Scots poet of his day, Charles Murray published a slim volume of poems in 1917 titled A Sough O’ War (in Scots dialect, a sough is a deep sigh or strong breeze, and the word may also be used figuratively to refer to a song).    

Murray’s lovely poem “When will the War be By?” is poignantly read with accompanying images in the first 1:15 of this video.  Below is the poem in Scots (on the left) and my rough translation in modern English (on the right).     

When Will the War Be By?                                         When Will the War Be Over?

‘This year, neist year, sometime, never’                 ‘This year, next year, sometime, never,’
A lanely lass, bringing hame the kye,                      A lonely lass, bringing home the cows,
Pu’s at a floo’er wi’ a weary sigh,                          Pulls at a flower with a weary sigh,
An’ laich, laich, she is coontin’ ever                      And softly, whispering, she is counting ever
‘This year, neist year, sometime, never                  ‘This year, next year, sometime, never
When will the war be by?’                                     When will the war be over?’

‘Weel, wouned, missin’, deid,’                              ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead,’
Is there nae news o’ oor lads ava?                         Is there no news of our lads at all?
Are they hale an’ fere that are hine awa’?            Are they strong and unbroken that are far away?
A lass raxed oot for the list, to read—                   A lass reached out for the list to read—
‘Weel, wounded, missin’, deid’;                           ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead’;
An’ the war was by for twa.                                  And the war was over for two.
                        --Charles Murray, 1916

Noon, by George Henry
In both its language and action, the poem evokes the simple traditions of the countryside: herding the cattle home from the fields and the timeless practice of plucking at daisy petals while reciting “He loves me; he loves me not.”

In Murray’s poem, however, the young lass recites a variation on the chanted refrain, seeking a different kind of foreknowledge. She isn’t asking if her love is returned, but instead if her lover will return. Is the young man who occupies her thoughts well or wounded? Worse still, might he be missing or dead? 

Men died quickly, but news traveled slowly.  In the time before telephone, television, and the internet, women anxiously waited for the latest publication of the war casualty lists (in the poem, this is the list that the young woman reaches out to read). The British War Office published its first casualty list on September 1, 1914, naming all soldiers reported killed, wounded, or missing. For nearly three years, a daily list was released, and several newspapers included the list in their publications (including The Times and The Scotsman) until August 1917. At that time, newspapers decided to stop publication of the lists, due to their length and the amount of space needed to report the names of thousands upon thousands of casualties. His Majesty’s Stationery Office assumed the task of printing the war casualty lists, selling them for 3 pence each. 

While it is difficult to fully comprehend what 125,000 war deaths meant to Scotland, this poem hauntingly speaks of how the death of a single man upended the world of the woman who waited for him.  This one Scottish soldier’s war ended on foreign battlefield; the war was over, too, for his sweetheart who had so closely followed its progress, praying for her soldier’s return -- “An’ the war was by for twa.” 

Charles Murray, describing his admiration for the Scots dialect, wrote, “I was raised upon Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, and the old Scots, and all my life as a boy I was taught to look out for quaint phrases, out of the way expressions, and to study and delight in the old, original characters of the countryside.”*  Murray was fifty when the war began in 1914, and many of his poems are deeply patriotic, appealing to the ideal of the traditional Scottish warrior. However, there is often also an underlying melancholy in his poetry, heard in the whisper of the sough of war as it blows through the glen with the news of a clansman’s death.   

 *“The Making of the Poems,” Charles Murray: Poet, Prospector, Public Servant

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

If only

A memory can serve as an anchor and a touchstone to the past; when we learn that a remembered place has been changed or erased, we lose a bit of ourselves. Just one month after Britain declared war on Germany in early August of 1914,  fifty-one-year-old English novelist May Sinclair volunteered to join the Munro Ambulance Corps in Belgium.  The early months of the war were chaotic, and Sinclair, along with the Red Cross unit to which she’d been assigned, were caught up in the October retreat of the Belgium army and forced to flee from the German advance.  Sinclair was a witness to shelled villages, crowds of fleeing Belgian refugees, and dying and wounded soldiers who were among the first casualties of the war. She wrote in her journal, “It is extraordinary how your mind can put away from it any thought that would make life insupportable.”* In an attempt to cope with the tragedies unfolding around her, she turned to poetry.

After the Retreat

If I could only see again
The house we passed on the long Flemish road
That day
When the Army went from Antwerp, through Bruges, to the sea;
The house with the slender door,
And the one thin row of shutters, grey as dust on the white wall.
It stood low and alone in the flat Flemish land,
And behind it the high slender trees were small under the sky.

Francis Wolle collection
It looked
Through windows blurred like women's eyes that have cried too long.

There is not anyone there whom I know,
I have never sat by its hearth, I have never crossed its threshold, I have never
opened its door,
I have never stood by its windows looking in;
Yet its eyes said: 'You have seen four cities of Flanders:
Ostend, and Bruges, and Antwerp under her doom,
And the dear city of Ghent;
And there is none of them that you shall remember
As you remember me.'

I remember so well,
That at night, at night I cannot sleep in England here;
But I get up, and I go:
Not to the cities of Flanders,
Not to Ostend and the sea,
Not to the city of Bruges, or the city of Antwerp, or the city of Ghent,
But somewhere
In the fields
Where the high slender trees are small under the sky—

If I could only see again
The house we passed that day.
--May Sinclair

One simple house, “low and alone”: the memory of it is haunting.  The war itself is simply too large to comprehend: thousands of exhausted and frightened refugees, endless lines of retreating soldiers, hospital wards filled with wounded and dying men – these are  too much for the mind to hold. Instead, the woman who watches the war focuses on the one thing that stands apart from the chaos. The normalcy of a single house with its slender door and grey shutters is reassuring, even as both the home and the slender trees surrounding it are dwarfed by the sky and the unfolding drama of the retreat.

The observer in the poem feels a strange kinship with the house, and even its windows are “blurred like women’s eyes that have cried too long.” While the woman watching the war does not know the house nor anyone who has lived there, it seems to stare at her and speak prophetically, perhaps accusingly, imprinting itself on her memory and whispering, “there is none of them that you shall remember/As you remember me.”
Ypres 1915, Gilbert Rogers
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3792

Even after leaving Flanders and returning to the safety of England, the poem’s speaker spends sleepless nights haunted by memories of the war. Rising from her bed, she journeys in her imagination not to the famous cities that have fallen, not to the hospital wards of wounded, not to the files of men marching in exhausted retreat, but to one solitary homestead. Like her, the house is a small and insignificant witness to the war.

The poem’s last stanza echoes the its opening lines with the simple plea, “If I could only see again/The house we passed that day.” What meaning does this unremarkable house hold? Perhaps the compulsion to see it once more is simply to insure that the home still stands, that it lives on as a silent witness.  Did the solitary house with the slender door and grey shutters survive, or was it too obliterated by the violence that shook the world in the years of the Great War?

Writing in her journal, May Sinclair voiced her own uncertainties: “I do not know whether I have done the right thing or not in leaving Flanders (or, for that matter, in leaving Ghent). All that I know is that I love it and that I have left it.  And that I want to go back.”**

Although she spent only three weeks with the Field Ambulance Corps in Belgium, the experience touched Sinclair deeply. Her journal notes, “wherever the ambulance cars go, they meet endless processions of refugees; endless, for the straight, flat Flemish roads are endless, and as far as your eye can see the stream of people is unbroken; endless, because the misery of Belgium is endless; the mind cannot grasp it or take it in. You cannot meet it with grief, hardly with conscious pity; you have not tears for it; it is a sorrow that transcends everything you have known of sorrow.”***

Like other women who wrote poems about the First World War (for example, Margaret Widdemer and Maria Dobler Benemann), May Sinclair uses the image of a home and all it represents – normalcy, security, and love – to express the unimaginable devastation of the Great War.  Destroying everything in its path – from remote homes to the very fabric of European society – the war forever altered the world.
May Sinclair

* A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 150.
** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 289.
*** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 119.