A soldier of the Machine Gun Corps in a sheepskin coat kissing a French farm-girl under a sprig of mistletoe.Hesdin, France, December, 1917.
I recently finished reading Regeneration by Pat Barker. It is set in a war hospital in 1917, where a psychiatrist is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. Robert Graves also features.
This passage is from when the two poets first meet, Owen speaking:
‘”It’s not just that, though, is it? Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. You looked back along and . . . Like mushrooms. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow . . . distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you . . . almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.”
For a moment the nape of sassoon’s neck crawled as it had the first time Campbell had talked about German spies; but this was not madness. “I had a similar experience. Well, I don’t know whether it is similar. I was going up with the rations one night and I saw the limbers against the skyline, and the flares going up. What you see every night. Only I seemed to be seeing it from the future. A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls. And I seemed to be in that time and looking back. I think I saw our ghosts.”
Silence. They’d gone further than either of them had intended, and for a moment they didn’t know how to get back.’
I can imagine the dialogue being like this, with Sassoon sensing something equally as great within the star-struck Owen.
From that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia:
Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers:
He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,” stormed Stockwell.
Sassoon became a focal point for dissent when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in him being admitted to the psychiatric hospital. Sassoon survived the war.
Wilfrid Owen had a number of traumatic experiences, including when he fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amongst the remains of one of his fellow officers. Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met Sassoon.
Owen was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. There is an added sense of waste to his death when you realise how close he came to making it.
Both men, (like many other of the War Poets), are remembered for the body of work created in response to their dark muse in that scattered arena of death.
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.
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?
The location is only recently discovered. An unmarked grave, a place where he has lay since succumbing finally to the gas that ravaged and burned his airways and lungs. Effects that would have thwarted any joyful, loving, homecoming.
New Year’s Eve, 1919. The day that the year would have trembled on the edge of extinction, dragged that wheezing, gasping man with it.
The world moved on to new beginnings.
Today, the ground is just the ground, unremarkable, undisclosed. The air is dank and cold, resonant with stirring echoes that insinuate images and moments that the imagination seizes and runs with.
A broken woman holds a young girl’s hand, their emotions fluid and merging, seeping deep into the soil.
The seasons pass, the earth turns, the girl grows into a woman who now holds the hand of another girl, a chain link of affected generations.
The original woman now shares the space with the man, beneath their feet. Black lace married to khaki for eternity.
This later woman lays flowers on the anonymous spot, watched by the girl who swallows her questions, then they both wander away to visit another, freshly festering, sore.
The girl glances back once as they near the chapel, sees me, distant, taking my turn.
Devoid of crosses, I leave this marker, small and consumed, in this place that has anchored fatherless girls to stare at an empty spot, while daring to contemplate alternative worlds.
I depart this ground with a solemn promise, and the autumn leaves gently circle, dancing to time’s capricious tune.
Things are starting to feel a bit heavy on Jackdaw. I was going to do a post today about when I went to Greece to visit the grave of my great-grandfather, buried in Thessaloniki. But I think I will save that for another time. This short post here will be the last of my First World War themed posts. Then we move on.
Trying to get a grasp on the numbers, the magnitude, in relation to the war is impossible. When we talk about the deaths, about the millions of deaths, they become just that. Numbers. Faceless, anonymous, horrifying, numbers. So I resorted to address the legacy of the conflict through my own family connections. These more personal links help to bring home the devastating effects of that conflict. Both of my grandmothers grew up without having their fathers in their lives because of that war. Every Remembrance Sunday I never forget that.
On the evening of the 4th of August, 1914, as the clock ticked ever closer to the deadline time of 11.00pm, the whole country waited to hear if Germany had responded to Britain’s ultimatum. In two different homes in Manchester, each just a short walk from each other, both Timothy O’Sullivan and Albert Cartwright would also have been waiting with their respective wives and young families. Or perhaps they had both gone to gather outside Manchester Town Hall to hear the news, before returning home to talk war around the hearth. What would those houses have been filled with? Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty? Perhaps a growing excitement? Maybe even an idea that war could somehow still be averted? Or were both families reconciled to the fact that everything had irrevocably changed?
Neither family could have known that, within four years Timothy would be dead, within five Albert. Forty nine years down the line from that night, these two families would become connected when Timothy’s grandson (my Dad) would marry Albert’s granddaughter (my mum). At the wedding, both the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride would have that sense of loss in common.
This is my blood-story that brings home the tragedy of the period to me. It is only through stories like this that we can fully appreciate how children, families, were cheated. As a father myself, who was lucky enough to grow up with my father in my life, that is how it would feel to me. Cheated. How different things could have been if only these people had been born in a different period of history. But this is now part of my family history. Part of my story too.
Along with the family perspective, another way we can get to understand the impact of the war is through the local connection. There are the names on local memorials, stories in local archives and on the lips of the people that we meet. For months now our local newspaper has been printing stories that include things that I can relate to. The names of streets that the soldiers came from, the same streets that I have grown up on. The name of schools and churches that those young men attended, institutions that are still part of my community.
One local story that stayed with me was one that I read about a few years ago. It was a story that took place not on a battlefield, not in the theatre of war, but here on the streets of my town, Middleton.
It was a written account of a local who remembers witnessing one day, up in the Cheapside area of the town, the local postman sat sobbing on a kerb by the roadside. A woman who lived nearby was sat with her arm around his shoulders, silently consoling him. This postman spent everyday delivering telegrams to fearful households, breaking the news that a loved one had been lost.
I was a postman for eleven years. I was accustomed to people waiting expectantly for the post, some not leaving home until I had arrived. For him it must have been so different. No-one wanting him to call. Every dreading household watching out to see which house in the street he was going to next. In the end it must have been too much for him-the constant, devastated reactions of people that he knew. Bringing bad tidings about people that he knew.
The family stories, the local stories. It is these that bring home to me what the consequences of the war was. The unparalleled, worldwide devastation and loss, seen here in microcosm.
Tomorrow, something lighter. I promise.