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.

1 comment:

  1. ‘Cannon Fodder’ (originally ‘Carrion’ but revised at his horrified parents’ request) was written in September 1917 at Flanders where he served as a machine-gunner on the front-line at Passchendaele. It bitterly contrasts the proliferation of severed body-parts and rotting corpses, an everyday experience for Alec, with comforting delusions back home over the heroic nobility of a soldier’s death. Michael G. Brennan: Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family, p. 3