Monday, July 2, 2018

The Photograph

Jack Langley Newby, Wellington NZ 1917
 photo by William Berry, Te Papa (B.044362)
Millions of First World War soldiers posed for studio portraits of themselves in uniform. Taken before leaving to fight or while on leave, the photographs were given as keepsakes and comforts to family and loved ones. They were also poignant reminders of the men who did not return from battle. Nonconformist minister Edward Shillito published “The Photograph” in his collection of war poetry Jesus of the Scars (1919).
Anonymous soldier, photo found in skip,
courtesy of Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust

The Photograph

Upon the parlour mantelpiece,
In khaki, still without a crease,
The picture of a soldier stands,
With harden’d face and rigid hands;
It keeps for memory the day
In which the old world passed away;
It tells of many battles won
Before the lad put khaki on;
And in his stiff and homely face
Shines all the spirit of his race.
But he will never have to fight
As she who bore him fought that night,
When he came home with khaki on,
And she had lost her only son.
            —Edward Shillito

Photographs of nameless young soldiers from the Great War can still be found at car boot sales, flea markets and in antique shops. In “The Green Fields of France,” (you can listen to the song at this link), Eric Bogle visits the grave of Willie McBride, a man killed in 1916, and asks,   
Are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

In addition to examining the frozen moment in time when the soldier adopted his stiff pose, Shillito’s poem also dramatizes the conflict experienced by women on the home front who were asked to support their country’s military aims while setting aside their own grief and fears. In an earlier poem titled “The Mother,” Shillito had written,

No plain in Flanders lies more bare
Than this arena of my soul,
For two fierce Loves are struggling there,
And I must pay the toll.

Like ghostly armies to and fro,
Love fights with rival love to-day;
I cannot bear my boy to go,
I would not have him stay.

Mothers were not the only women who bore the strain of balancing competing loyalties. While serving as a nurse in France during the Great Retreat of 1918, Vera Brittain received a letter from her father informing her of her mother’s illness and demanding that she return home: “As your mother and I can no longer manage without you, it is now your duty to leave France immediately and return to Kensington.” Brittain recalls her dilemma:
What was I to do? I wondered desperately. There was my family, confidently demanding my presence, and here was the offensive, which made every pair of experienced hands worth ten pairs under normal conditions….Half-frantic with the misery of conflicting obligations, I envied Edward [Brittain’s brother] his complete powerlessness to leave the Army whatever happened at home.*

Vera Brittain concludes with an eloquent assessment of the demands that war places upon women:
Nellie and Albert, courtesy 
What exhausts women in wartime is not the strenuous and unfamiliar tasks that fall upon them, nor even the hourly dread of death for husbands or lovers or brothers or sons; it is the incessant conflict between personal and national claims which wears out their energy and breaks their spirit.**
* Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Virago, 2014, pp. 385-386.
** Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 386.

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