Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Unknown knitters

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith
Art Gallery NSW OA18-1960

Napoleon and Frederick the Great are both credited with saying, “An army marches on its stomach,” but commanders of the First World War recognized that soldiers’ feet were just as critical to military success. Trench foot was a serious problem, and men were advised to change their socks twice a day to avoid the painful, debilitating condition. Some reports suggest that a pair of socks lasted only two weeks when on active duty.* In the first months of the war, British commander Lord Kitchener requested the help of Queen Mary in enlisting volunteers to produce at least 300,000 pairs of socks for the troops, and by war’s end over 15 million handmade items had been supplied.**

Those who volunteered were encouraged to go about their work with cheerful optimism, for women’s emotional energies were believed to “permeate the very articles made, handled and packed.”*** Homemade garments were more than items of clothing: they were charmed talismans sent from the home front to the war: “What prayers are knitted into the socks, what hopes stitched into the pyjamas.”****

In his essay “The Unknown Sock Knitter,” Bruce Scates praises the work of those who crafted items for soldiers and sailors during the Great War: “This emotional labour is not something money can buy—it is a product of unpaid work, a thing freely given.”† 

The actual work of knitting could be tedious: it would take at least one day of uninterrupted knitting (“without life interfering”) to make a single, grey sock.†† But knitting was one way in which women could display their patriotism, and the very act of knitting also helped to manage anxiety, grief, and the frustrating loss of control that was a regular part of life during wartime.


Untitled Poster © Art.IWM PST 13401

Shining pins that dart and click
     In the fireside’s sheltered peace
Check the thoughts that cluster thick
     20 plain and then decrease.

He was brave—well, so was I—
     Keen and merry, but his lip
Quivered when he said good-bye—
     Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip.

Never used to living rough,
     Lots of things he’d got to learn;
Wonder if he’s warm enough—
     Knit 2, catch 2, knit 1, turn.

Hark! The paper boys again!
     Wish that shout could be suppressed;
Keeps one always on the strain—
     Knit off 9, and slip the rest.

Wonder if he’s fighting now,
     What he’s done and where he’s been;
He’ll come out on top, somehow—
     Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.
          —Jessie Pope

Researcher Jan Montefiore argues that much of women’s war poetry reflects “the extent to which their writers seem trapped…. living through a horrifying War whose course they are powerless to affect, often racked with anxiety about men they love but are powerless to help,” women who are “trapped not only in anxiety but in the drably unheroic existence of wartime civilians.”††† Knitting may have provided some hope and comfort.

Recent research has found that knitting is characterized by “movements that are bilateral, rhythmic, repetitive, and automatic…. [and that] engage more brain capacity than unilateral ones and appear to facilitate a meditative-like state more readily than unilateral movements.” As well, evidence from animals has found “that repetitive movements …. enhance the release of serotonin.”†††† In research surveys, knitters report that knitting helps them to “forget problems” or “work things out,” and that it often serves as a “defence against anxiety” or as a means of “coping with their pain.”°

In her day, Jessie Pope, the author of “Socks,” was popular for her lighthearted comic verse; she contributed over 170 poems to Punch between 1902 and 1922.°° Today, Pope is more commonly known as the target of Wilfred Owen’s sardonic criticism, as evidenced in his derisive dedication to her in early drafts of “Dulce et Decorum Est.” But as Jane Potter argues in “A Certain Poetess,” “Like many voices from the Great War, Jessie Pope’s voice creates a more complex and interesting alternate space. Her writing problematizes our view of war as a useless waste, at least for those experiencing it at the time, a great many of whom welcomed the kind of humourous, witty, and simple escape from the cataclysm.”°°°

During the First World War, women were encouraged and expected to remain positive and cheerful, and knitters were praised for the prayers and optimism that they invested in the socks they made. Those who harboured negative thoughts may have felt the need to repress their despair for fear it would infect the garments they were sending to the front.

Jessie Pope’s war writing addresses anxiety as it attempts to boost morale. Like the act of knitting itself, Pope’s determinedly positive poetry masks the strain and worry that many women were unable to outwardly express.
* “Lady Liverpool Great War Story,” New Zealand History,
** From Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild: Its Work in the Great War (1919), cited in Paul Ward, “Empire and the Everyday: Britishness and Imperialism in Women’s Lives in the Great War,” Rediscovering the British World, edited by Philip Alfred Buckner and R. Douglas Francis, U of Calgary P, 2005.
*** “Be Strong,” Red Cross Record, 12 Jan. 1916, quoted in Scates, p. 37.
****Red Cross Report from Vaucluse, Australia, 12 Jan. 1916, quoted in Scates, p. 37.
† Scates, “The Unknown Sock Knitter: Voluntary Work, Emotional Labour, Bereavement and the Great War,” p. 37.
†† Julie Power, “Purler of a yarn on how women kept troops in comfortable socks,” Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Nov. 2012,
††† “Shining Pins and Wailing Shells: Women Poets and the Great War,” Women and World War 1, edited by Dorothy Goldman, 1993, Macmillan, p. 55.
†††† Betsan Corkhill, Jessica Hemmings, Angela Maddock, and Jill Riley, “Knitting and Well-Being,” Textile, vol. 12, no. 1, p. 40.
° Corkhill et. al, pp. 39, 47.
°° W.G. Bebbington, “Jessie Pope and Wilfred Owen,” Ariel, vol. 3, no. 4, 1972, p. 91.
°°° Jane Potter, “A Certain Poetess: Recuperating Jessie Pope (1868–1941),” Landscapes and Voices of the Great War, Routledge, 2017, p. 111.

Friday, February 26, 2021

A Grave in Flanders

FG Scott at son's grave in August 1918
 Australian War Memorial E04978

Frederick George Scott was serving as a chaplain with the First Canadian Division in France when he learned of the death of his twenty-four-year-old son Henry, killed in October 1916 while leading an attack on enemy lines near Albert. After the chaos of battle, Henry’s body had been hastily buried between the lines, but could not be recovered. In late November 1916, the fifty-five-year-old chaplain set out to find his son’s remains and rebury them.

Frederick George Scott, known as the poet of the Laurentians, was an Anglican priest before the war. He volunteered as an Army Chaplain in August 1914 and recalled his thoughts when he stood in the pulpit that same Sunday: “When I was preaching at the service and looked down at the congregation, I had a queer feeling that some mysterious power was dragging me into a whirlpool, and the ordinary life around me and the things that were so dear to me had already begun to fade away.”*

Canon Scott was an atypical military chaplain, choosing to serve not near field hospitals at the rear, but instead near the front. Others report that he was “Always in the thick of the fighting, bearing almost a charmed life, ignoring any suggestion that he should be posted to a softer job ‘further back.’”** Perhaps because of his own sons’ war service (two of his sons were with the Canadians at the Western Front), Scott “made a habit of spending time with his men on the front lines, giving last rites to the dying. He often courted death to be with the soldiers, whom he saw as ‘his boys.’ Though he was commissioned as a major, he frequently went in the trenches wearing a private’s uniform with his clerical collar so as to mingle with the men more freely.”***

In Scott’s memoir, The Great War as I Saw It (1922), he recalls his time in Flanders: 

The wood [Ploegsteert] in those days was a very pleasant place to wander through. Anything that reminded us of the free life of nature acted as a tonic to the nerves, and the little paths among the trees which whispered overhead in the summer breezes made one imagine that one was wandering through the forests in Canada. In the wood were several cemeteries kept by different units, very neatly laid out and carefully fenced in. I met an officer one day who told me he was going up to the trenches one evening past a cemetery in the wood, when he heard the sound of someone sobbing. He looked into the place and there saw a young boy lying beside a newly made grave. He went in and spoke to him and the boy seemed confused that he had been discovered in his sorrow. “It’s the grave of my brother, Sir,” he said, “He was buried here this afternoon and now I have got to go back to the line without him.” The lad dried his eyes, shouldered his rifle and went through the woodland path up to the trenches. No one would know again the inner sorrow that had darkened his life. ****

It is likely this account that contributed to inspiring Scott’s poem “A Grave in Flanders.” 

Ploegsteert Wood war cross,
image by Redvers
A Grave in Flanders†

All night the tall trees over-head
     Are whispering to the stars;
Their roots are wrapped about the dead
     And hide the hideous scars.

The tide of war goes rolling by,
     The legions sweep along;
And daily in the summer sky
     The birds will sing their song.

No place is this for human tears,
     The time for tears is done;
Transfigured in these awful years,
     The two worlds blend in one.

This boy had visions while in life
     Of stars on distant skies;
So death came in the midst of strife
     A sudden, glad surprise.

He found the songs for which he yearned
     Hopes that had mocked desire;
His heart is resting now which burned
     With such consuming fire.

So down the ringing road we pass,
     And leave him where he fell,
The guardian trees, the waving grass,
The birds will love him well.
     —Frederick George Scott, 1st Canadian Division, BEF

Nature guarded the dead just as it brought solace to the living. Scott recalls a night spent ministering to the wounded in a sunken trench near Courcelette in late September 1916:

The stars were always a great comfort to me. Above the gun-flashes or the bursting of shells and shrapnel, they would stand out calm and clear, twinkling just as merrily as I have seen them do on many a pleasant sleigh-drive in Canada. I had seen Orion for the first time that year, rising over the broken Cathedral at Albert. I always felt when he arrived for his winter visit to the sky, that he came as an old friend, and was waiting like us for the wretched war to end.†† 

Just weeks later, Scott received word that one of his sons had died in battle. His memoir records his visit to the 87th Battalion shortly after to learn the details:

When the battalion was relieved the dead had to be left unburied, but several men volunteered to go and get my son’s body. This I would not hear of, for the fighting was still severe, and I did not believe in living men risking their lives to bring out the dead. I looked far over into the murky distance, where I saw long ridges of brown land, now wet with a drizzling rain, and thought how gloriously consecrated was that soil, and how worthy to be the last resting place of those who had died for their country. Resolving to come back later on when things were quieter, and make my final search, I bid good-bye to the officers and men of the battalion and was motored back to my Headquarters.”††† 

Scott was able to return to the area near Regina Trench over a month later in mid-November, and with a runner, he found a cross marking his son’s grave. They began to dig until they exposed a hand wearing Henry’s signet ring. Removing the ring, the chaplain read the burial service, then “made a small mound where the body lay, and then by quick dashes from shell hole to shell hole we got back at last to the communication trench…. It was a strange scene of desolation, for the November rains had made the battle fields a dreary, sodden waste.”° A working party brought Henry Hutton Scott’s remains back behind the lines on Nov. 24. His father was there as they

laid my dear boy to rest in the little cemetery on Tara Hill …. I was thankful to have been able to have him buried in a place which is known and can be visited .… In June of the following year, when the Germans had retired after our victory at Vimy Ridge, I paid one more visit to Regina Trench. The early summer had clothed the waste land in fresh and living green. Larks were singing gaily in the sunny sky. No sound of shell or gun disturbed the whisper of the breeze as it passed over the sweet-smelling fields. Even the trenches were filling up and Mother Nature was trying to hide the cruel wounds which the war had made upon her loving breast. One could hardly recall the visions of gloom and darkness which had once shrouded that scene of battle. In the healing process of time all mortal agonies, thank God, will finally be obliterated.°°    

* Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It, 1922, F.D. Goodchild, p. 15.
** Llewellyn H. Gwynne, “Forward,” The Great War As I Saw It by FG Scott, p. 9.
*** André Forget, “100 years after Vimy, a chaplain’s witness to war still resonantes,” Anglican Journal, 11 April 2017,
**** Scott, The Great War, p. 101.
† Published in Frederick George Scott’s In the Battle Silences: Poems Written at the Front, Musson Book Co, 1916.
†† Scott, The Great War, pp. 143–144.
††† Scott, The Great War, p. 148.
° Scott, The Great War, p. 157.
°° Scott, The Great War, p. 158. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Verses to a Mule

Missouri Digital Heritage, Springfield Greene County Public Library 

In her essay “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Great War historian Lucy Betteridge-Dyson writes,  “Yet whilst the contribution of the horse is undoubtedly fascinating … it is his less glamorous cousin, the mule, who was the real equine hero of the Great War.” She continues, “what sets the mule apart from the horse and the donkey are his physical attributes combined with his personality. He is both more intelligent and diligent than the horse, in addition to being tougher and more resistant to illness and disease. It is these characteristics which made the mule an invaluable resource during the Great War.”*

Some soldier-poets even wrote poems honoring the army mule: 

Verses to a Mule**

I’d like to sing the virtues of a mule, brown, black, or gray;
To paint his personality in quite a pleasing way,
But Jim declares a mule’s beneath such eloquent respect,
And, saying which, his diction’s more emphatic than correct.

A mule-skinner is Jim, and you ought to see him drive:
The wheelers balk and, statue-like, they scarcely seem alive;
The leaders semi-circle  ’til they prance at Jimmy’s feet,
And Jimmy leaps politely up to tender them his seat.

A mule is nothing beautiful; no hymn or work of art.
It’s Jim’s belief he’s only ears and hoofs, without a heart,
Unkempt, a shaggy animal, who shies at every shack,
Who always waits his chance and kicks you just below the back.

Now, only beasts can sweat, they say, for gentlemen perspire,
But bless the tugging mules that pull your auto from the mire.
’Tis true, by conscience they object to backing where they stand—
That’s not a vicious habit in a military land.

Oh, he’s the brute who lugs your heavy rations to the door,
The brute who labors, hauling, from the quartermaster’s store,
The one who stumbles through the mud and always finds his feet,
With loads of hay and wood and coal and clothing, bread, and meat.

He looks at you as if his soul lay sleeping in his eyes,
He plods the roads as if the world for him held no surprise,
He pulls the combat wagons over ruts as high as trees,
He wallows where the others shrink and dirties up his knees.

So talk to him more gently, Jim, this homely beast of toil,
For he’s the only one can swim through Carolina soil;
And tuck him safe in bed at night and kiss him on the cheek—
And maybe, then, he’ll never kick you—more than once a week.
—Charles S. Divine*** 

British soldier & mule © IWM Q 16181

All combatant nations relied heavily on horses and mules, quickly learning that mules were more adaptable to the conditions of the First World War. From the mud of the Western Front to the barren landscapes of Gallipoli, mules transported supplies, carried the wounded, and hauled heavy artillery. The primary supplier of mules was the United States, exporting 180,000 mules to Britain alone during the war.†

When the U.S. entered the war, mules joined American troops in overseas service and proved indispensable; Pershing commented that one of the most significant logistics problems faced by the AEF was the shortages of animals. On several occasions, the service of mules and their handlers was nothing short of heroic: 

© IWM Q5773 John Warwick Brooke 
On 4 October 1918 [at Ergemont during the Meuse-Argonne offensive] all communication with artillery in the rear had broken down, and the commander sent for new telephone wire. All division trucks were bogged down in mud, and wagon horses faltered in their traces. So Sgt. Laurence M. Lumpkin loaded ten pack mules with the needed wire and headed for the forward position. German artillerymen spotted the animals and laid down a barrage that killed five of them. The remaining mules with Lumpkin did not panic, and they delivered the wire. After unloading them, Lumpkin galloped the five animals back to the point where the other mules had fallen, removed the loads from the dead mules, repacked his remaining five and brought back the rest of the wire. For this dangerous act he received the DSC, but the mules were given no official recognition. “Their behavior under fire, however, endeared them to the First Division.” ††

To learn more about military mules, see Betteridge-Dyson’s essay at this site, which also includes another example of mulish war poetry, “Musings of a Mule.”
*Lucy Betteridge-Dyson, “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Oh What a Ladylike War. Betteridge-Dyson’s article is a superb introduction to military mules.
**“Verses to a Mule” was first published in the Wadsworth Camp (Spartanburg, SC) newspaper, Gas Attack, March 2, 1918. This version appears in Charles Divine’s City Ways and Company Streets, Moffat and Yard, 1918.
***For more on Charles Divine and his war poetry, see “When Private Mugrums Parley Voos” on this blog.
†Emmett M. Essin, Shavetails and Bell Sharps: The History of the U.S. Army Mule, U of Nebraska, 2000, p. 147.
††Essin, p. 155.