‘Scene After the Battle’ – why we cannot let the 11/11/2018 be the end of the story…

British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at The Battle of Arras. Courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.comMy book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.

The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.

Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.

For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.

Scene after the Battle 

The cavalry never came.
For days that felt like months

I lay in the sodden mud of the field,
scanning through bloodied eyes

the blue-grey horizon, longing to see,
rising up from the ridge of the hills,

the creeping silhouettes of men and horses
against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,

carrying hopes of a game-changing charge
that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.

But over the field now, only the wind blows
softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.

Christopher Grogan

On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.

100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.

Shell Shocked Britain is available from all good bookshops and online retailers and is currently on special offer from publishers Pen and Sword Books at £13.00. See https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Shell-Shocked-Britain-Hardback/p/6103. 

 

 

 

A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)
Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

On the 11th hour – Wilfred Owen & a most moving poetic parable

The 11th of November, and Remembrance Sunday were days my father held above most others. Some of my earliest memories involve standing to attention by the black & white television in the back room as  Big Ben chimed, the guns went off to mark the end of the minutes silence and the Queen stepped forward to place her poppy wreath. I remember lots of sad, old faces; berets, medals and inevitably, wheelchairs.

I have very mixed feelings about war and the waste of young lives it inevitably involves. I admire our armed forces and still keep Remembrance Sunday as a mark of respect for my father and all it meant to him.

However, I feel that despite all the horrors of the wars of the 20th century politicians have learnt nothing. Young men and women are still sent into war zones about which we know very little for causes we hardly understand. My daughter’s 17 year old friends are talking about the army as an alternative to university and unemployment, but seem to assume combat is an extension of a Playstation or X Box game. It is hard to listen to.

So today, I reserve a place on my blog for a poem that has always been one which has moved me more than any other as a ‘commandment’ to us to think long and hard before once more sending our troops into situations where they die with honour; heroic in defence of their comrades and their units. But for a wider good? Who is entitled to make that decision?

Inspired by a parable in the Book of Genesis , in this poem, Wilfred Owen acknowledges God’s mercy in a way he rarely does in his work; but he leaves man to take the final decision. And it is the wrong one.

The Parable of the Old Man & the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen – written 1918

God rest their souls.

The poetry of London: Wilfred Owen and the Ghost of Shadwell Stair

Wilfred Owen is, for many (including myself) the greatest poet of the First World War. Memorable works such Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth are part of the GCSE syllabus; Owen himself features in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy alongside fellow poet and mentor Siegfried Sassoon and his life and work are the subject of important 20th century biography and criticism. However – how many know him as a poet of London? Of the East End; of the Thames; of life in the capital?

Born in Oswestry- the border country where Shropshire meets Wales- in 1893, Wilfred Owen was introduced to the fashionable London circle which included literary figures such as Robbie Ross and Charles Scott Moncrieff, who with Siegfried Sassoon, were doing much to promote his career as a poet.  However, he had earlier expressed how he much preferred the reality of lives as experienced in the East End, around the docks, to the more fashionable areas where he would later mix with London literary life. In 1915 he described Tavistock Square as..

 wadded with fog; skeletons of dismal trees behind the palings; but the usual perversion of ghostly aristocracy

Earlier that year he had written of how tired he was of the West End; his longing to visit Whitechapel and Mile End again, despite the usual view that by comparison their streets were hostile and ugly.

Ugliness! I never saw so much beauty…….

In a lyrical passage dated 1916 he wrote:

The dawn broke as I crossed the Bridge (Waterloo) and the Dome and the East End showed so purply against the orange infinite East that in my worship there was no more care of trains, adjutants or wars.

Shadwell Stairs and the Shadwell Basin lie within the heart of London’s Docklands, close to Wapping and the famous (or infamous) Prospect of Whitby public house and Execution Dock, so named because Judge Jeffries would apparently sentence prisoners to hang and watch their death throes as he enjoyed his Sunday pub meal. It is not a place one immediately associates with Owen. However, this poem, written  in 1818 in Scarborough where his regiment the 5th Manchesters were stationed,  is I think stunningly evocative of both the area and the mood of a man about to return to the trenches.

I am the Ghost of Shadwell Stair

Wilfred Owen 1918

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.

Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
And eyes tumultuous as the gems
Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.

Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
Where I watch always; from the banks
Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.

I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.

There is some debate over the meaning of the poem. Does it, as some suggest,refer to Owen’s troubled feelings about his homosexuality and represent an image of ‘cruising’ around the seedier areas of London looking for dangerous sexual encounters? Or is the main figure – the ‘ghost’ – a prostitute that links this work to that of Oscar Wilde in poems he admired, such as Impression du Matin?

Or perhaps the poem refers to the soldier, haunted by memories of the front – itself a ‘cavernous slaughterhouse’. Wraith-like he walks the streets, unable to sleep, until  the stars of London wane/And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair  and he is woken from his reverie only by the reminder of the Docks as a place of work as the ‘crowing sirens blare’?

For me it little matters that we have no definitive answer as to the poem’s meaning. Images in the second and third stanzas of the gem-like moon and lamps reflected in the dusky waters of the Thames and the reference back to his writing of the East End showing ‘purply’ in the ‘purple street-arc’ are so very lovely, that the mysterious identity of the second ghost simply adds to the overall atmosphere. Its setting is specific but its meaning is as hard to grasp as the wraiths it depicts, the two linked by the reality of the ‘clanks’ of the shipping and noisy sirens.

Although it is one of his lesser known poems, I feel that Wilfred Owen offers us London, the Thames and docklands,  as possessing a real and ever -present wraith-like humanity and we are tracing and re-tracing its steps as we read.  As John Keats (a poet Owen was greatly influenced by) would say, in following Owen the experience is ‘proved upon our pulses’….

For more information about Wilfred Owen and his work, and the work of other war poets, the following websites are useful:

The War Poetry Website

The Wilfred Owen Association