Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Speak of France with me

Relief worker writes letter for wounded soldier
"The single most characteristic feature of ...women's experience of war was isolation," argues World World War I literary critic Gill Plain.*  Vera Brittain, in her essay “War Service in Perspective,” also describes the “barrier of indescribable experience” that the First World War erected between the men who had fought and the women who loved them. Edmund Blunden wrote of the divide as an “impassable gulf”; Edgell Rickword as “two incommunicable worlds,” and Richard Aldington as “gesticulating across an abyss.”**

Soldiers found it difficult to talk about the war with others who hadn’t been there; their poetry was one way of attempting to understand the Great War and its effects. By the time Brereton’s An Anthology of War Poems was published in 1930, the modern conception of war poetry had emerged: realistic eye witness accounts of combat and its effects, written by soldiers or “trench poets.” Perhaps the best-known example is Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” with its vivid and concrete description of the victim of a gas attack “yelling out and stumbling” as blood comes “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.”

But what of the women who observed the war and were forever changed? Female nurses, ambulance drivers, journalists, and aid workers served on the borders of the combat zone, and they also experienced realities of total warfare that were incompatible with the propagandist information disseminated by official sources. Women volunteers who witnessed the effects of the war first-hand also found that their experience cut them off from noncombatants, while cultural expectations of femininity severely constrained what they could share with others about their experiences.  

May Wedderburn Cannan was one of those volunteers. She served in France at a railway canteen for British soldiers in 1915 and returned to Paris in 1918 to work in the British intelligence office. Cannan’s childhood friend Carola Mary Anima Oman worked for three years as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, and in 1918 was assigned to care for the wounded near Boulogne. In Cannan’s poem “France,” we hear a woman trying to break down the barrier of isolation and reach out to someone else who will understand; Cannan dedicated the poem to her friend Oman.

(To C. M. A. O.)

You also know
The way the dawns came slow
Over the railway stations out in France;
And you have seen the Drafts entrain
Photo from collection of Pam Mills
By the blurred lanterns in the rain,
And wept the True Romance.

You've also gone,
Dead tired, stumbling on,
Over the pavé when the day was born;
And weary beyond sleep lain down
And heard the clocks strike in the town,
Most young, and most forlorn.

And you have met
On lone roads in the wet
Field Batteries trotting North, and stood aside
And sent your heart with them to fight,
And ridden with them through the night
Until the pale stars died.

And you know too
How a man whistles through
British tear gas victims © IWM (Q 11586) (1)
The dark a line of some forgotten song;
You've seen the Leave Boat in, and then
Gone back to jest with broken men
Who once were swift and strong.

You know how black
The night sea tides surged back
On dock stones where the stretcher bearers kneeled;
And how the fog greyed the men's lips
And the red crosses of the ships,
And how the searchlights wheeled.

You've woke to see
Death hurtle suddenly
On to the hut roofs when the Gothas† came;
And watched a man by Love possessed
Fight through to morning, and go West
Whispering his Girl's name.

Wherefore I know
That you will serve also
The living Vision men call Memory,
And hold to the brave things we said,
And keep faith with the faithful Dead—
 And speak of France with me.
                        --May Wedderburn Cannan

Like many of the soldier poets, Cannan also writes of exhaustion and the numbing effort required to put on a brave face.  The women volunteers also stumble through their duties “dead tired” with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Against the backdrop of a world that is dark, rainy, and blurred with shadow and fog, the women are asked to stand aside as new recruits march past to the killing fields of the front lines and then to care for the endless parade of the injured and dying who return from battle.  Day in and day out, through slow dawns and black nights, the women are asked to lighten the spirits of the endless stream of wounded by jesting “with broken men/ Who once were swift and strong.”

Photo courtesy of Crescy Cannan and Clara M Abrahams
May Cannan is 3rd from the right
Rather than directly describing the carnage, Cannan’s poem uses oblique language and metaphors to veil horrors that were unfit for women’s eyes and could not be communicated in respectable women’s speech. Stretcher bearers kneel by men whose lips are greyed by fog; the maimed and mutilated are “broken”; those slowly dying in agony “go West.”

The impressionistic scenes in the poem are linked by the repeated refrain that reaches across the isolating experience of war towards another woman: “You also know,” “You’ve gone too,” “And you know too.”  There is a quiet poignancy in the restraint of the poem’s last line that underscores how precious will be the gift to “speak of France” with another woman who understands all the war encompassed and all that cannot be directly said. 

*"Great Expectations: Rehabilitating the Recalcitrant War Poets," Feminist Review, Autumn 1995, p. 41.
**See Claire M. Tylee’s The Great War and Women’s Consciousness, pp. 54-55.
†The Gotha was a German bomber aircraft.


  1. What a beautiful, poignant poem. I had not heard of May Cannan before. Thank you for sharing her poetry.

  2. May Cannan (Wedderburn -- her married name) is one of my favorite "neglected poets." I've blogged on several of her poems (you can access them by looking up the tag "Wedderburn" on the right side-bar of the blog -- or just use the search bar for "Cannan." It's wonderful to have found someone else who appreciates her, too!

  3. Thank you so much for this. I've loved this poem for decades but not known who to attribute it too.

    1. So happy you've found May Wedderburn Cannan -- thanks for reading and for the comment, Jenn.