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. 

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