Monday, May 22, 2017

Maker of Dreams

Dreamers were perhaps more common in the trenches of the Great War than has been previously acknowledged.  Imaginative soldiers “seized a star-beam” and climbed out of the trenches to join “star and bird and wind and rain” (see “Bivouacs” by Gilbert Waterhouse) or mentally removed themselves from the unspeakable horrors of the front lines:
            "Over!  How the mud sucks!  Vomits red the barrage.
            But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs."
                       -- Going Over” by Charles G.D. Roberts

William Oliphant Down was a West Country man, born in Somerset and raised in Dorset. Before the war, he had achieved recognition for a play "as iridescent as a soap bubble," the 1911 one-act fantasy The Maker of Dreams, which asserted that “the greatest thing that dreams are made of is love.”*

Caught up in the patriotic fervor of 1914, Down volunteered and was commissioned as an officer in the British infantry, first joining the 15th Royal Hussars, then the Royal Berkshire’s 1st/4th Battalion. Imagination served him well – or he put it aside – in daring action at the Somme near Pozieres in July of 1916.  He was awarded the Military Cross, the British award recognizing “acts of exemplary gallantry,” for leading a night patrol mission and subsequently commanding an attack during which he “reached the heavily-wired German second line, which ran north and south through the outskirts of Pozières, but was forced back. Returning with about 20 men from all three Companies he barricaded and secured Point 81, after killing 11 Germans in hand-to-hand fighting and capturing 2.”**

While rotating in and out of the front lines of battle, Down continued writing plays and poetry.  Three of his trench poems are parodies, reshaping popular songs and poems. In “Picardy Parodies No. 2,” he turns his wry humor to reshaping W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Down’s poem satirizes the loss of individual freedom and volition in war. 

Picardy Parodies No. 2 (W.B. Y..ts)

I will arise and go not, and go to Picardy
Lough Gill and Lake Isle of Innisfree, vintage postcard
And a new trench-line hold there, of clay and shell-holes made,
No dug-outs shall I have there, nor a hive for the Lewis G.,
But live on top in the b. loud glade. 

And I may cease to be there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the mouth of the Minnie to where the sentry sings;
There noon is high explosive, and night a gunfire glow,
And evening full of torpedoes’ wings.

I will arise and go now, though always night and day
I’ll feel dark waters lapping with low sounds by the store,
Where all our bombs grow rusty and countless S.A.A.;
I’ll feel it in my trench-feet sore.
            --William Oliphant Down

In Yeat’s original poem (which can be read here), the speaker rises and retreats to the idyllic charms of an Irish lake, where he builds a small cabin, plants beans, tends bees, and finds peace “alone in the bee-loud glade.” The poem describes the simple beauties of an island sanctuary: the morning songs of crickets, the purple glow of noon, the evening skies full of birds in flight, and the soft glimmer of midnight. 

After the Battle, Paul Nash (1918)
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2706)
In Down’s parody of Yeats' poem, the speaker rises, but is unable to go anywhere. In Picardy, men dwell in a state of paralysis, and the stagnation and mud cannot be escaped. Soldiers live and work in water-logged trenches and struggle against the corrosive damp that attacks everything from their Lewis machine guns to the store of bombs and small arms ammunition (S.A.A.).  In early July of 1916, the Berkshire Regiment’s War Diary reported, “The trenches were in a very bad condition, full of water and mud…the water in many places was waist deep.” Down's parody transforms the gently lapping lake waves of Lough Gill to dark, fetid pools that rot even the feet of the soldiers. 

The soundscape of the two poems is also sharply different: in Picardy, the silence of nature has been invaded by artillery blasts, the rattle of gunfire, and the shouts of a sentry as incoming “Minnies” fall on the trenches. The effects of the Minenwerfer, a German short-range artillery trench mortar, are described in the 1918 book Lingo of No Man’s Land: “The mortars throw a shell one thousand one hundred forty feet away, and even though no fragments touch him, the concussion is so great that a man’s insides burst like a kernel of popcorn and death is usually instantaneous.”†  

Night and day are undifferentiated in this world of madness and mud. The only peace to be found in Picardy “comes dropping slow,” as the only escape is death.

With no end to the war in sight, men were forced to adapt to nearly unendurable conditions of life in the trenches.  Writing parodies and reshaping familiar songs and poems may have provided some semblance of autonomy and control in a world that offered very little of either.

William Oliphant Down died of wounds and escaped his war on May 23, 1917.  He was most likely shot by enemy machine gun fire on the night of May 22nd as his unit was relieving the Glosters near Demicourt, France. Harold Veasey, in the Foreword to Down’s posthumously published book of poems notes, “His was a nature that abhorred war and its attendant horrors; it is, therefore, remarkable that this dreamer and idealist should have developed into such a very gallant and capable soldier.”††

Memorial at St. Mary's, Gillingham
Photo by Mr. C.E. Moreton

*“The Maker of Dreams: Some Press Opinions” from George Otis, The Stupid Witness and “Lecture Given on “Maker of Dreams,” The Columbia Spectator, 27 March 1915.
Lingo of No Man’s Land by Sergt. Lorenzo N. Smith, a soldier who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 36.
††Poems by Oliphant Down, 1921.


  1. Another wonderful, poignant post. I find I have to take regular breaks from my reading of WWI poets and memoirists else I am in the doldrums for days. I don't know how you do it, reviewing so many works from such talented writers who often met such tragic ends. Thank you for your work in finding, and sharing, these works.

    1. Thanks for reading -- I hope in some small way this blog helps to remember and honor those who might otherwise be forgotten.

  2. I love the way you illustrate your work with photos and drawings from the time. I agree with the previous writer-reading these posts regularly can be depressing. I admire your ability to keep at it.

    1. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment -- it's sincerely appreciated!