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A recruitment poster for the Football Battalion (Wikipedia)

 

One of the great fortunes of studying the First World War at A-level right now is the wealth of interesting resources available for you to access. It wasn’t always this way, of course; in the dark days when I first began writing this blog you could barely get an amusing gif of Fieldmarshal Haig tripping on a duckboard.

Not exactly true, but you get my gist. The centenary has been a good time for students of First World War history and literature to learn about life from 1914 to 1918.

On Monday I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Dan Snow’s ongoing Radio 4 series about the conflict, ‘Voices of The First World War’. This series is a goldmine for those of you fretting about your lack of historical knowledge about the war. In the UK you can listen online or download the series as MP3 files (outside the UK, I’m not so sure).

Each episode in the series is under fifteen minutes long, and focuses on a single aspect of the war, from First Impressions on the outbreak of the war to most recently (and fortuitously given my last post!) the emergence of new technologies like Tanks.

The episode that caught my attention was entitled ‘Sheffield and the Somme’. It is, admittedly, an upsetting program. In it, Sheffield locals give their own firsthand accounts of the effect upon the community of the massacre of the Sheffield City Battalion, or as they were then known, the ‘Sheffield Pals’.

The Pals Brigades are one of the more sobering facts of the First World War. They were a successful recruiting method whose formation had unseen and tragic consequences in battle. Men from a particular locale or men who found themselves in a particular type of employment could enlist with friends and colleagues with the prospect of staying with them for the rest of the war. In 1914-15, this break with army tradition was felt necessary to encourage mass conscription. The New Army formed- also known as Kitchener’s Army, named after the Secretary of State for War- was an army of millions, ready for active duty by the end of 1915. In fact, many of the Pals brigades first saw action in the battle of the Somme in July 1916.

The unforeseen consequence of this method of recruiting was that when a battalion faced a massacre, as the Sheffield Pals did on the first day of the Somme, the area from which the Pals brigade was taken took disproportionate and catastrophic numbers of casualties. Between July 1st and July 3rd, 1916, the Sheffield Pals- which had recruited somewhere between 900 to a thousand men in two days in August 1914- sustained 495 men dead, injured or missing. The terrible consequences of such massed death was keenly felt in the districts from which the men came. Whole cities felt the devastation of loss.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, when we judge the formation of such brigades, and certainly they played their part in the creation of a large and well-trained conscript army. Yet  it is too little noted that foresight is a wonderful thing too; would that it had been more in evidence in British plans for the conflict. Sheffield writer John Harris notes of the Sheffield Pals, they were “Two years in the making; ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history”.

‘Sheffield and the Somme’ captures this shocking moment in British history through the dignified testimony of those who suffered. It is well worth your attention, as is the rest of the series. Should you wish to read on- particularly, perhaps, if you are reading Whelan’s ‘The Accrington Pals’- there is also an excellent website, Pals.org.uk, which details the formation of several of these brigades.

hg_wells_land_ironclads_1904

A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.

 

The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.

 

 

 

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So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.

 

I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.

Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.

Hello again!

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Sorry about that. Teaching and having two children under the age of four have proved enjoyable if busy diversions from the world of blogging. In the meantime, it seems, the busy elves at WordPress (the company which hosts this blog) have been at work in my absence, and the links to around 28 posts have gone up in smoke.

So, here I am, back to show you how to access all the posts that have been hidden, and to introduce a new widget which it seems utterly bizarre that I haven’t installed before.

Previously, if you wanted to see all my posts, you merely looked at the sidebar under ‘Recent Posts’ and there they were. Looking there more recently however you would only have found my last 50 posts. WordPress have now placed a maximum number of posts under that category.

Well, to cut a long story short, I’ve decided to create a new archive page for all my postings. This way you can access all the study notes for poems that I’ve written, and the blog posts for wider reading too. Look to the top of the page and you’ll see a tab reading, ‘All Posts and Poems! – Archive’. Click on this and it’ll take you to a list of all my archived posts.

To make life simpler for you when searching for poems and posts I’ve also decided to install a search button. Enter a word into the box on the right-hand side and I am reliably informed that some form of electronic gnome will say ‘shazam’, throw some digital chicken bones into the air, and my best posts will appear before you.

I can’t believe I haven’t installed it before, frankly. Someone surely should apply this idea to the whole internet. They’d make pots of money! Who’s in?

It’s the night before The Big One, and so I’d like to wish you all the best of luck in your AS exams– especially if, like our fabulous group at here at Southfields, you’re sitting the AQA English Literature exam tomorrow afternoon.

Exams are scary things, it’s true. I passed on some last minute thoughts about sitting them this time last year: you can read them here, if you’d like. I still stand by those thoughts! If you have any exam approaching, I wish you success. I hated exams– but they do get you places.

Many thanks to all of you for making ‘Move Him Into the Sun’ such a success. We had our 150,000th visitor this weekend. 2,318 people have visited the site so far today– it took over half a year for the site to get that many hits in a single month!

Thanks, finally to this year’s AS group at Southfields– a lovely class who made teaching the subject an absolute pleasure. You know I’ll be thinking of you all tomorrow. Well, actually, I’ll be waving you all into the hall.

Good luck!

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham,
I wonder to myself– will life ever be sane again?

[IMPORTANT CORRECTION: 9th May 2012]

In the post below, this blog originally stated (on 5th May) that ONLY the AQA Key Poems listed below could be selected for the ‘Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’ question in part 1b of the exam. 

This is NOT the case. ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. To be clear: AQA have only ever chosen poems from this Key Poems list for their January and Summer examinations. This is NOT, however, a matter of policy for the board. To repeat: ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. 

The full clarification from AQA is as follows: 

“To be clear, when the key poems lists were originally disseminated, it was with the clear statement that they were intended as a guidance document for teachers to offer a ‘likely starting point’ when approaching the set texts. Students are expected to have read the whole text. [My emboldening here].

I’m sure you will appreciate that we cannot state that the named poem question will come from this list, despite the fact that it has done so to date.”

Apologies, then, to all of you for disseminating the wrong information about this list of Key Poems. 

I have now corrected the article below. You would still be wise to use the list below strategically when revising: after all, if they’re ‘Key Poems’, and in the past every poem-based question in 1b has come from this list, you would presume that the poems on this list are likely to come up in the exam– wouldn’t you?

[ENDS: ORIGINAL ARTICLE BEGINS WITH CORRECTIONS]

Exam time draws near for students studying the AQA English Literature Specification A exam. Panic is in the air: the faces may change, but it’s the same story every year. There’s panic from the students who skived all year, who now know they need a miracle to get that ‘C’. There’s panic amongst the students who’ve worked hard all year and really want to make the right choices in revising for the exam. There is even– whisper it– sometimes panic amongst teachers, who worry whether they’ve prepared their students as best they can. Let’s face it, exam time is stressful for nearly everyone. As a sixth form tutor as well as an A-level teacher, I see the effects all around me: the most rational people get snappy, and lack sleep, or haven’t seen the sun in weeks, and indulge in over-eating, or fall into under-eating… there’s avoidance, confrontation, aggression, exhaustion. And that’s just the teachers. (boom-TISH!)

Anyway, this post is in answer to concerns expressed by one Move Him Into The Sun reader who is fearful that their teacher hasn’t taught them every poem from the WWI selection in the Stallworthy anthology. I think there’s probably a good reason for this, and the information I supply here in answer might help iron out a few creased brows for other students too.

Here’s one big worry for those sitting the exam. In part 1b, students are typically given the option of choosing a thematic question or a question centred on one or two poems (in both, of course, you have to bring in your wider reading). This latter question often begins, “Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’. A big worry with the exam is that, should you for whatever reason have missed reading a poem, that this poem will come up as a question, and you’ll have to fall back on the thematic question to show off what you do know.

This is when narrowing down the poems that you must revise becomes a big help for students. Now, the AQA board supplied teachers with a list of key poems from the Oxford Book of War Poetry when they set out the specification (though it is almost impossible to find this list online– a flaw that AQA should amend quickly, if they truly believe, as they say they do, that transparency with students about assessment is the key to success).

What this means for you is that, crucially, not all the WWI poems in the Stallworthy anthology will be the subject of a question in part 1b. All the poems in Stallworthy’s selection will be rewarded in marking, so if you’ve studied all the poems for the exam, don’t fret, you haven’t wasted your time. [This is an AQA expectation.] Only select Key Poems, however, will form the basis of an essay question. [Any poem may be selected for examination– nonetheless the poems examined thus far have all come from this Key Poems list.] These are the Key Poems given to me by AQA:

Men Who March Away; In the Time of the Breaking of Nations; Peace; The Dead; The Soldier; The Volunteer; Into Battle; In Flanders Fields; ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’; ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’; Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; An Irish Airman foresees his death; ‘They’; The Hero; the Rear-Guard; The General; Glory of Women; Rain; As the Team’s Head Brass; To His Love; Ballad of the Three Spectres; The Silent One; On Receiving News of the War; August 1914; Break of Day in the Trenches; Dead Man’s Dump; Returning, We Hear the Larks; Anthem for Doomed Youth; Dulce et Decorum Est; Exposure; Insensibility; The Send-Off; Futility; Strange Meeting; Sergeant-Major Money; The Zonnebeke Road; Winter Warfare; ‘my sweet old etcetera’; ‘next to of course god america i’; For The Fallen; from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; Triumphal March; Elegy in a Country Churchyard; Epitaphs of War; Subalterns; Rouen; MCMXIV; The Great War; Six Dead Men.

To state again, you will be able to use the other WWI poems in the anthology in question 1b, and these will be rewarded; but only the poems above can be [have historically been] the subject of one of those ‘Remind yourself of…’ questions.

Hopefully, this little bit of information will help the more strategically-minded among you plan for the exam– and set to rest some who are worried that they haven’t been taught the whole anthology. [My greatest regret here is that while I hoped to bring some clarity to the examination and reduce anxiety amongst all you who are sitting the exam next week, I fear I may have muddied the waters and raised nervousness amongst some of you. To be clear: this list of poems remains a good guide to the poems that the AQA prefer to examine candidates on. It is so good, in fact, that it has had a 100% hit-rate so far. It is simply that I cannot categorically say that the poem(s) in 1b you are asked to write on will come from this list. But let’s say this: it’s highly likely.]

Good luck– and don’t waste the Bank Holiday weekend! Find time for revision- and rest.