Friday, July 20, 2018

Dying for Your Country

British WW1 poster, 1915

In 1917, British writer and editor T.W.H. Crosland penned a war poem that strips war of its glory and speaks directly to soldiers who fight. His tongue-in-cheek advice is just as likely to find a receptive audience in the military today.     

Dying for Your Country
Dead in trenches, WW1

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
   Arose from out the azure main,
We had no buttons and no band—
   We did our murder very plain;
There were no heroes, no V.C.’s,
    No glory for the honoured dead—
We went and slew our enemies,
    Or they slew us, and nothing said.

Slaughter was slaughter, gore was gore,
   And kicks were kicks the same as now,
And death was just as sharp and sure,
   And just as cooling to the brow.
We did not fight for pelf or fame,
   Neither for honour did we strive,
Nor for to make Old England’s name,
   But just to keep ourselves alive.

German #WW1 poster:
"Because I Must"
It’s him or you, ourselves or them—
   An ugly wild-beast law—and yet
It hits us with a gust like flame
   When we are minded to forget;
For all our sweet tarantara,
   Our “love of right” and “hate of ill,”
Boil down to the old formula—
   We must be killed unless we kill.

So, Johnny, keep your barrel bright,
   And go where you are told to go,
And when you meet, by day or night,
   Our friend the enemy, lay him low;
And you must neither boast nor quake,
   Though big guns roar and whizz-bangs whizz—
Don’t die for your dear country’s sake,
   But let the other chap die for his.
            —Thomas William Hodgson Crosland

TWH Crosland
Siegfried Sassoon described Crosland as “a remarkable man… a human battleground of good and evil.”* Crosland’s biographer praised him as “one of the last of the small band of brilliant Victorian literary men…. he was a true poet, a master of prose, an acute, fearless and sane critic, a great satirist, a patriot of patriots, a smiter of skunks and humbugs, a prince of Bohemians, and one of the most original and remarkable literary men that ever lived.”** Yet Crosland was also “a severe alcoholic, terribly self-destructive, bigoted, homophobic, and possessed too what today would perhaps euphemistically be referred to as ‘anger management issues.’”

Elizabeth Vandiver notes that Crosland’s war poems are a collection “whose entire burden is unambiguous praise of the war effort and the soldiers.”†† However, the poem “Dying for your Country” seems to mock the idea that war is noble or glorious;  it  acknowledges the gore and slaughter, while sympathetically addressing the fighting men.
* Siegfried Sassoon, qtd. in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Duckworth, 1998, p. 146.  
**  William Sorley Brown, The Life and Genius of T.W.H. Crosland, C. Palmer, 1928, p. vii.
† Richard J. Bleiler, The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons”: Arthur Machen’s World War I Story, McFarland, 2015, p. 103.
†† Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, Oxford UP, 2010, p. 400.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Memories of Mesopotamia

View at the top of the Tak-i-Girrieh pass on road from Mesopotamia to Persia
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2343) 

The Great War was the first world war, a war that took many far from their homes and sent them to places distant and unfamiliar.  In two short poems, J. Griffyth Fairfax, a British soldier born in Australia, educated at Oxford, befriended by Ezra Pound, and serving with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, captures scenes from the forgotten front in the Middle East.   


The clouds are gathered and the wind blows,
wet with tears
The river is ruffled grey,
And swept in a curve like a sinister steel blade
Tapering slimly away.
In the hand of Destiny this sword severs our years,
Sunders the light and shade.


A long lean cloud, like a greyhound,
Chases a fading sun;
The plain turns black, and the wave turns gold,
Then dark, and the day is done,
And the bats swing out in circles,
And the stars wake, one by one.
Fallujah ca. 1914 Caravanserai

Still today, clouds gather, winds blow, darkness falls – and the battle for oil, land, and power rages on. 

Fairfax’s poems were published in Mesopotamia: Sonnets and Lyrics at Home and Abroad, 1914-1919 and dedicated to Brigadier-General E. Dickson and Captain R.S. Aitchison: “These verses are affectionately inscribed in memory of some peculiar and many pleasurable adventures shared while serving with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force 1917-1919.”

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Cannon Fodder

The Thinker, William Orpen (c1918)
As the First World War transformed the world, it also changed the English language. Numerous new words and phrases were added, including tank, cootie, and camouflage.  While the phrase cannon fodder first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s supplement of 1891, the term became widely used during the Great War.  Fodder is food given to livestock, and the sense of using men as “food for the cannons” entered English in the late 1800s through a direct translation of the German word kanonenfutter. The concept of regarding men “merely as material to be consumed in war,”* however, is not a new one; as early as the 16th century in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff describes common infantry troops as “food for powder.”**

During the First World War, the British frequently used the term to describe German military strategy, as can be seen in this example from a 1916 essay published in Punch Magazine: “The Crown Price has still his laurels to win, and it is clear that no sacrifice of German ‘cannon fodder’ will be too great to deter him from pushing the stroke home.”***

But in his 1918 collection of war poetry, English machine-gunner Alec Waugh applied the term to the British dead. 

Cannon Fodder

Is it seven days you’ve been lying there
     Out in the cold,
Feeling the damp, chill circlet of flesh
     Loosen its hold
On muscles and sinews and bones,
Feeling them slip
One from the other to hang, limp on the stones?
Seven days. The lice must be busy in your hair,
Zonnebeke 1918, William Orpen
And by now the worms will have had their share
      Of eyelid and lip.
Poor, lonely thing; is death really a sleep?
Or can you somewhere feel the vermin creep
      Across your face
As you lie, rotting, uncared for in the unowned place,
That you fought so hard to keep
      Blow after weakening blow.
Well.  You’ve got what you wanted, that spot is yours.
No one can take if from you now.

But at home by the fire, their faces aglow
      With talking of you,
They’ll be sitting, the folk that you loved,
      And they will not know.
O Girl at the window combing your hair
      Get back to your bed.
      Your bright-limbed lover is lying out there

WW1 Bamforth Song Card
O mother, sewing by candlelight,
      Put away that stuff.
The clammy fingers of earth are about his neck.
      He is warm enough.

Soon, like a snake in your honest home
      The word will come.
And the light will suddenly go from it.
      Day will be dumb.
And the heart in each aching breast
      Will be cold and numb.

O men, who had known his manhood and truth,
      I had found him true.
O you, who had loved his laughter and youth,
      I had loved it too.
O girl, who has lost the meaning of life,
      I am lost as you.

And yet there is one worse thing,
For all the pain at the heart and the eye blurred and dim,
This you are spared,
You have not seen what death has made of him.

You have not seen the proud limbs mangled and broken,
The face of the lover sightless and raw and red,
You have not seen the flock of vermin swarming
      Over the newly dead.

Slowly he’ll rot in the place where no man dare go,
Silently over the right the stench of his carcase will flow,
Proudly the worms will be banqueting….
      This you can never know.

He will live in your dreams for ever as last you saw him.
Proud-eyed and clean, a man whom shame never knew.
Laughing, erect, with the strength of the wind in his manhood—
      O broken-hearted mother, I envy you.
            —Alec Waugh, Flanders. September 1917.

Death Forbids, Percy Smith 1918
Alec Waugh and his regiment participated in the horror at Passchendaele in 1917. Waugh’s direct and brutal description of witnessing a body decay in No Man’s Land was discussed in a review that appeared in The Bookman: “his [Waugh’s] ‘Cannon Fodder’ and ‘The Other Side’ strip the romance of war to the bone and leave it a senseless huddle of mud and blood and putrefaction that no sane man could glorify.”†

Less explicitly, the poem “Cannon Fodder” gives voice to the isolation and alienation that link the experience of the trenches with that of the home front.  Despite the multitude of living things in No Man’s Land – busy lice, creeping vermin, and feasting worms, the dead man is a “poor, lonely thing.” And when the family learn of their soldier’s death, the news enters their home like a snake, leaving a young girl, mother, and all who loved him, in silent, solitary darkness. 

The form of the poem mimics the frustrated search for meaning in a world that no longer makes sense: while there are rhymes, they are unpatterned and unpredictable, and several lines end with words that never find an answering echo (as in line 3, flesh or line 47, broken).  The poem’s stanza lengths also vary widely: the first stanza and its description of the putrefying body is the longest (18 lines). As the poem continues, however, stanzas grow increasingly shorter, until the last four stanzas are limited to four lines, as if mirroring the breakdown and decay of bodies, of understanding, and of meaning. 
When The Bookman reviewed the poem in 1918, St. John Adcock noted what made Waugh’s work both disturbing and distinctive:
      We are so accustomed to have our poets pass elusively over ugly truths that it shocks some of us to come across Alec Waugh’s swift statement of bald details in his sharply-contrasted sketches of what is happening simultaneously at home, here, and on the battle-fields at a distance.††
* Oxford English Dictionary, "cannon fodder." 
** William Shakespeare, 1 Hen. IV, iv. ii. 72.
*** February 1916, Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War, Cassell, 1920, p. 74.
† A. St. John Adcock, “Poets in Khaki,” special supplement to The Bookman, vol. 55, December 1918, p. 98
†† St. John Adcock, “Poets in Khaki,” p. 99.