In Greece; Forever England

Since City Jackdaw has been flying, I think I’ve probably made a Remebrance Sunday post every year. Except yesterday.

As usual we spent the day, which coincided with the Armistice Centennial, by visiting the memorial on which the names of past family members are listed. It’s this personal connection that gives context to the wider impact of that war.

As I didn’t post yesterday, I will share this photograph today: it’s from when I visited the grave of my Gt Grandfather, Timothy O’Sullivan, in 2007, ninety years to the day since he died. He is buried in Thessaloniki. A plot that is forever England.

R.I.P

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Christmas Kiss

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.


Merry Christmas to you all. Don’t get chapped lips from all that kissing.

The Muse In The Dark Arena

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

Where My Great Grandfather Lies

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.

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A Sea Of Red

Here are some striking images of the moat of the Tower Of London, filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British life lost in the Great War.

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I like how they appear to flow down from the castle into a sea of blood.

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The name given to this art installation is ‘Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red.’

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In this centenary year of remembrance, I think it really is quite effective. Each individual poppy is to be sold to raise money for different charities.

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Sometimes, when numbers become, well, just numbers, we need a visual representation to help us appreciate the scale of things. Think of the size of the ocean created if the seas of blood from every, affected, scarred country should run and merge into one.