War And Words

I have just finished reading Goodbye To All That, the autobiography of writer and poet Robert Graves, up to 1929. In it he talks of meeting other writers such as Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, and, in more depth, Siegfried Sassoon. Of most interest, though, is his account of the time he served as an officer in the First World War.

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He speaks of the horrors of war:

“…I went along whistling ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, to keep up my spirits, when suddenly I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yard’s range.”

There is also the tragi-comic, such as the soldier who wanted a ‘cushty’ wound that would get him sent back home to England:

“…so he waves his hand above the parapet to catch Fritz’z attention. Nothing doing. He waves his arms about for a couple of minutes. Nothing doing, not a shot. He puts his elbows on the fire-step, hoists his body upside-down, and waves his legs about till he gets blood to the head. Not a shot did old Fritz fire. “Oh,” says the Munster man, “I don’t believe there’s a damn square-head there. Where’s the German army to?”  He has a peek over the top-crack! He gets it in the head. Finee.”

Graves talks of the superstition among the men, and how he himself saw the ghost of a friend who saluted him through a window, who unknown to the author had been killed some time previous. He also tells how Sassoon distinguished himself by single-handedly taking an enemy frontage in daylight, but then instead of signalling for reinforcements, sat down in the German trench and started reading a book of poetry he had taken with him. His furious Commanding Officer said he’d have gotten him a D.S.O (Distinguished Service Order award) if he’d only shown more sense.

This is a good book and a timely read, what with all of the First World War anniversaries occurring around this time.

I have also picked up some more books from the Penguin Modern Classics range: some Capote, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stegner, to add to those I already have.

Could there be a greater collection of books out there?

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6 thoughts on “War And Words

  1. Wow. You’re reading some great books.
    What a horrible death scene to witness. Something like that stays with you.Sassoon
    And Sassoon’s story is incredible. It’s amazing what people do in a stressful moment.

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    • Despite missing out on the D.S.O, Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross for another heroic action. Disillusioned, it was thought he had later thrown it into the sea. But I remember it turning up for auction after being found in an attic-it was just the ribbon that he discarded. He was vocal about how the war was being conducted, but the authorities shied away from taking action against a war hero. You or I would have been shot!

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