First World War


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So, to the closing of the curtain on Part One of the novel, with this long and crucial chapter in which Willie witnesses the 1916 Easter Rising.

Summary— Chapter Seven

His leave over, Willie wakes in a long army barracks room in Devoy amongst many other men. Getting up, he urinates into a chamber pot which he then places by his bed, but in doing so he stirs the man in the bed next door. This man, an ugly Southerner, leaps up and knocks his own Bible into Willie’s full chamber pot. Willie offers the man his own family Bible, which at first placates him, but the Southerner then violently leaps on Willie and strangles him. Willie offers no resistance, until the Southerner suddenly lays off him, declaring in mitigation a murder would stop him being sent to France. He then proceeds to chat amiably with Willie about betting. He introduces himself as a Cork man, Jesse Kirwan. Willie introduces himself, and to the resigned question “What did the Irish ever do?” Billy answers that they died abroad lately. Kirwan laughs and thinks on Willie’s words.

Willie accompanies his strange new friend as they are transported through Dublin. Willie looks for Gretta; Kirwan sits on the floor of the transport, uninterested in Dublin, something Willie cannot understand. Willie eventually sees Gretta on the steps running down to the dock, and in return she sees him: the two wave enthusiastically to each other. Willie is elated. He talks to Kirwan, who mentions his father and asks what Willie’s father does. Willie answers that his father is a policeman. Kirwan replies his father, being against the law, would not approve. Willie asks what Kirwan’s father does. Kirwan’s cryptic reply is that his father is a lithographer, a word Willie does not understand, and this ignorance amuses Kirwan. Yet later Willie reflects that it is Kirwan’s ignorance of the character of the war that he is now headed towards which is worthy of pity.

Willie’s transport unloads its men onto the organised chaos of the docks. As the soldiers assemble, a horseman arrives bearing a message for the commanding officer. Amidst general confusion, Willie finds that he and the other men are being marched back into Dublin.

There they find the crowds already gone. Kirwan speculates that the war might be over and if it is so, he will, as one of Redmond’s Volunteers, leave the British army. Willie cannot understand Kirwan’s point and sardonically states that he too is a volunteer. When their column arrives at the O’Connell monument on Sackville Street (where his father played his part in the 1913 violence) the pair find a city in flux. Their column halts to see a thing that astounds Willie: a cavalry charge up the street. The gathered crowd cheers the chivalric sight before, even more bizarrely, firing begins from the General Post Office and cuts down the charging soldiers. Willie at first thinks the Germans have invaded Dublin. A civilian offers Willie a sheet of paper as he watches, and making to take it, an officer commands that Willie step back in line and not “parley with the enemy”. He tells Willie that if he takes the paper, he will shoot the civilian. Willie’s column is then marched across the city towards the Mount Street Bridge.

Willie’s column marches up Mount Street to find a battle ensuing, centred on a building to the left of the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, troops also advance. Willie’s column are commanded to improvise a barricade across the street by pulling out the furniture of local households. They then begin firing at the occupied building. A machine gun opens fire from the building, shooting down the advancing British soldiers on the other side.

Willie’s company are commanded to cease fire once it is realised that their own fire could be hitting the British soldiers opposite. Willie is dumbfounded by the scene. Belatedly, he realises that Jesse Kirwan is crying. Kirwan, having read one of the sheets blowing about the street, realises that the men in the building are “our fellas”, Republican rebels against the British. He is distraught. The command is made to prepare to charge under the cover of machine gun fire. British machine gunners, ensconced in a building on the right of the street, spot a young groom walking six horses on the road, and proceed to shoot him dead.

Willie and his comrades charge, and his many of his fellow soldiers are hit in the rifle fire from the rebel-occupied building. The charge only makes it halfway up the street before taking cover. Willie, stunned, finds himself next to an officer badly wounded in the shoulder. Suddenly a young man appears behind Willie holding a revolver. Nervous and pressing this to Willie’s chest, the young man declares that Willie is a prisoner. Willie cannot comprehend the man’s words, but the officer beside Willie immediately reaches over Willie’s shoulder and shoots the rebel.

Willie tends to the man on the floor, and asks him if he is a German. The dying man tells him he and all the fighters are Irishmen, then speaks an act of contrition before desperately grasping Willie as he violently chokes on his own blood. The blood of the man sprays over Willie in his long and horrible death. Willie finally says a quick prayer over the man’s dead body.

Willie’s company are withdrawn from the battle and marched back to the dock, where they are immediately decanted onto the troop ship. Confusion reigns amongst the soldiers. Willie worries about Jesse Kirwan and seeks him out on the ship. He finds him solitary beneath the ship’s second funnel as the ship chugs out to sea. They share a cigarette, and Willie asks whether the volunteers Kirwan declared membership of were the rebel force in the city. Kirwan, exasperated, explains that the rebels are those who disagreed with Redmond’s pledge to aid Britain. Willie, uncomprehending, explains that he is a volunteer too, but Kirwan points out that Willie volunteered in response to Lord Kitchener. He goes on to explain the origins of the Irish Volunteers as a Nationalist response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, with their pledge to resist Home Rule for King and Country.

Willie is nonplussed. He asks where it all leaves Jesse, and what the printed declaration he read about allies in Europe means. Kirwan explains that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity”, referring to the opportunity that Britain’s struggle abroad affords the Irish. Kirwan opines that he regrets not listening better to the lessons of his radical Nationalist father. Willie feels angry at Kirwan, and points out that many Irishman have died fighting against Germany, but intuits that his new friend, tolerant of Willie’s own ignorance, does not deserve anger. Kirwan’s final words to him are that he knows of the Irish dead.

Willie goes below decks to sleep and realises that his uniform is stained with the young Irishman’s blood. He tries to clean his uniform the next morning, but the blood will not wash out, and remains on his uniform until he arrives once more in Belgium.

Some thoughts on narrative

A remarkable set-piece, then, this eruption of the Irish struggle for independence within the narrative. The Easter 1916 Rising as depicted by Barry in chapter seven is as surprising to the reader as it was to the largest part of the Dublin population at the time— at no point in the chapter previous does Barry signal that Willie’s furlough is on the Easter weekend of 1916. Before moving on to ask questions pertinent to the study this chapter, I’d like to stop and consider the way that this chapter transforms the narrative as a whole.

Previously in the novel I think it is fair to say that we have been steered to anticipate that the events of Easter 1916 will feature explicitly or implicitly within the narrative (in any tale of a Dubliner during the First World War it could hardly be otherwise). The importance of the 1913 Sackville Street Riot in the story has implicated the novel’s main characters in a crucial event in the pre-war Irish history of labour struggle and civil rebellion. The description of the massacre of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers by gas at Ypres similarly entwines Willie’s experience as an Irish soldier within the complicated fabric of Anglo-Irish identities and loyalties, as this young Irishmen— indeed, at the time, a young Briton— fights for the British army abroad and sees his Irish comrades massacred. On a more subtle but perhaps more fundamental level, the language that suffuses the story— Hiberno-English— in its particular wording and unique syntax makes this a tale structured around an Irish lived experience, and specifically Irish ways of expression and thought. This narrative is ‘thrown’ into the Irish world. We rightfully expect, therefore, that the defining Irish political event of the First World War will make its force felt in the story: but perhaps not as directly as it does in this chapter.

I would argue that this is because the novel so far has been a story which has played on our readerly expectations of a number of other conventional narratives, despite its focus on the Irish and Irishness. First, and dominating the reader’s reception of the early part of the novel, we are reading a story about a young soldier caught up in the events of the First World War. The conventional First World War narrative typically tells of a young and somewhat naïve man journeying abroad to fight for his country, destined in doing so for an irrevocable change in the face of unimaginable violence and tragedy. Certainly the story until chapter seven has broadly followed this trajectory. Another conventional story is also nested within this narrative; the story of a boy and a girl who meet and fall in love, whose relationship will either succeed or fail. This subplot has teasingly remained nascent within the war narrative, but doubtless we anticipate some kind of deepening of the couple’s relationship to come, or an ending in some way caused by the war: again, a conventional element in war narratives. Finally, also nested within the war story, there is the story of the son who has lived in the shadow of his father’s desires, who has lived some of these as his own, but has begun to suspect their essential worth. The story, in other words, of an Oedipal rebellion that will create another identity for Willie, and the hard-won freedom of a knowledge that will encourage him to follow a new path in life.

The presentation of the Easter Rising at the end of the novel’s first act marks the moment when these conventional narratives are forcibly shifted or translated into a part of a different narrative, that of the historical struggle for Irish independence from Britain. The story thus far has been, as we have seen, particularly interested in Irish lives, and in its realist detail has traced many of the effects of British rule in Ireland. When the King of Ireland visits Dublin; when a supply trench in an Irish section of line is named Sackville Street; when Willie and his family live in apartments in Dublin Castle; when Christy Moran scorns the English and decries “the same fucking army that always done for us”, while fighting in that selfsame army; when Captain Pasley wonders at Moran’s lack of Gaelic; when marching Irishmen sing ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, but also sing ‘Take me back to dear Old Blighty’; when Gaelic syntax or calqued words and phrases endure in the English speech of the narrator and characters—all these are among the signs and symptoms that show the effects of many hundreds of years of British colonial rule, seams that reveal the motley and variegated fabric of Irish identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, in this scene that closes the first act of the novel, Barry’s narrative presents the eruption of violence on Dublin’s city streets, bringing revolutionary conflict front and centre for the reader.

This is, in one sense, a return of the repressed. Not that the Easter Rising is somehow a forgotten event: it is clearly central to modern Irish identity, as was made clear by the national remembrance of it in Ireland in 2016. This is not as true of British identity, where the centenary passed mostly unnoticed and uncommemorated (the Rising being one forcible divestment of Empire amongst many others that still remains too painful to confront, perhaps). Nonetheless, in focusing on that peculiarly Irish experience of the First World War, Barry is engaged in the recovery of a forgotten history. Those Irishmen who fought with the British Army during the First World War have, in a sense, been orphaned by history: for a long time now, no nation has been particularly interested in remembering them as their own. To fight bravely for what was once an occupying power is no source of deep credit in a post-colonial nation like Ireland, fashioning a new sense of identity. Similarly, the sacrifice of outsiders for an Imperial nation at war may for a time provoke feelings of almost mystical reverence amongst some at home: but that recognition of contribution sooner fades away into disinterest and often, after a time, bemusement at the ties of feeling that once bound foreigners to the homeland (how many in Britain now understand why Canadians, Austalians, New Zealanders, Indians, West Indians and Irish, amongst many others, fought under the Union flag?). History has shown that bemusement has been shared in post-colonial countries too.

So it would be one thing for Barry to write that Irish First World War novel, to try and recover the Irish experience of fighting in the British army during the First World War, and present all the multifarious reasons for which Irishmen did this. In doing so, he recoups some of the meaning that the Great War had for a disparate people. The conventional First World War narrative has definitively been changed, however, when Barry presents a key moment of fracture in the history of both Britain and Ireland— that moment in Irish history when, as WB Yeats famously wrote, all “changed, changed utterly”. History by its nature is multifaceted, but revolutions demand you take sides, and to remember and represent the beginnings of one is to unearth the forgotten trauma of that choice. The narrative takes a significant turn in this chapter which means, whatever happens next, the story is more than that of an Irish soldier at war.

Questions

“It was the very seam of night and morning, and Willie woke with ease and freshness. His body was warm and his limbs did not ache. It as very odd really.” So this chapter begins, with a suggestive metaphor of dawn. A seam is the line where two fabrics are stitched together. In war zones, it is also a home to lice. Why do you think Barry begins chapter seven with this metaphor?

The mercurial character of the nationalist Jesse Kirwan is one of the most vivid to feature in the story so far. Yet the beginning of this chapter, with the altercation surrounding Kirwan’s urine-soaked Bible, has the exaggerated and confusing character of farce. What are our first impressions of the Cork man? Why does he act the way he does? Why do you think that Barry introduces Kirwan in this way?

The detail about Jesse Kirwan’s father is suggestive of a particular kind of upbringing or worldview, very different to Willie’s. One of the songs that Kirwan’s father would sing, and Jesse repeats to Willie, is the old Scottish folk ballad, Helen of Kirconnel— “It’s a good one,” said Willie (p.84). When Willie tells Kirwan his father is a policeman, Kirwan replies “My father wouldn’t think much of that. My father doesn’t hold with laws and policemen and the like.” When Willie asks if his father a robber, Kirwan counters that he is “A lithographer” (p.84). A lithographer is someone who produces printed material from lithographs, either in the form of pictures or text: what do you make of this cryptic answer? Can you build your own imaginative portrait of Kirwan’s father, given the information the narrator supplies? What kind of relationship do you think that he would have with his son? Note that Kirwan later ruefully notes of the Rising that “my father said it would happen. He sees a long way into things. And I should have paid better heed to him, I think.” (p.96)

It could be argued that Jesse Kirwan is a kind of mirror to the character of Willie. In some ways he is very similar to Willie, in others almost a reverse image. Detail the ways in which Kirwan and Willie differ as characters, and the ways in which they are similar. Why, despite everything, do these two young men get on?

“‘Step back in, Private,’ called the captain. ‘Don’t parley with the enemy.’ ‘What enemy?’ said Willie Dunne. ‘What enemy, sir?’” (p.88). Ever the innocent (or perhaps, in Jesse Kirwan’s words, a “gammy fool”), Willie’s confusion and incomprehension in the face of the Dublin fighting performs a narrative function. Willie is constantly asking questions that ask to be explained or making assumptions that demand correction. What freedom does Willie’s limited perspective on events allow the writer in presenting the Easter Rising?

“Their column was fiercely halted and things took place now that no one could understand the purpose of. For here now, as real as a dream as one might say, a little contingent of cavalry was drawn up just under the awnings of the Imperial Hotel…” (p.87). Yeats wrote that in the wake of the 1916 Rising that all was “changed, changed utterly”. Revolutions demand not only the transformation of objective society but also a shift in the perception of those living within that society. As Barry describes it, the beginnings of this occur in the tumult of the Easter Rising. In what ways is familiar Dublin defamiliarised in his description of the Rising? What does the rebel violence reveal about the relationship between the Irish and the British?

 Read the accounts of the Battle of Mount Bridge Street in the following two articles. Note that these two historical narratives take very different perspectives on the Easter Rising. The Western Front Association writes describing the Battle as one among a multitude of others fought during the First World War. The Irish Story article, taken from a larger historical work by John Dorney, focuses more on the Irish rebels. Consider the narration in these articles; the way in which the narrators’ perspectives and selection of detail produce different understandings of this battle in Dublin (both, I want to make clear, are well sourced historical accounts—we are not searching for falsehoods here). How is authority established in the narration, so that we believe these accounts the Battle of Mount Bridge Street? What people and events do these two historical accounts focus on? In what ways are statistics and speculation used in support of viewpoint? Are there moments that could be considered emotive or symbolic of a broader viewpoint on the Easter Rising in these accounts? The purpose of this exercise is not to find bias, as such: this would presuppose that there is some ideal objective narrative out there capable of being told. It is to discover the ways in which storytelling, and the forms we use in storytelling, necessarily produce meaning— and can direct the reader to find meaning.

Willie’s encounter with the nineteen year old Irish rebel (p.92-3) has the character of mythology; that is, it is a scene that could be seen as embodying or symbolising something essential about Ireland and conflict between Irishmen in 1916. It is also another example of the mirroring of character that features in this chapter. What misunderstandings are foregrounded here? How do the two soldiers treat each other? Does this scene suggest anything about the author’s perspective on revolutionary Ireland?

“Ah Jesus, Willie. That’s different altogether. You’re a volunteer for fucking Kitchener. You can’t be this thick. Look it, boy. The Ulster Volunteers were set up by Carson to resist Home Rule…” (p.95). Jesse Kirwan is more clearly a device in the narrative than any other character that has featured in the story so far. What function does this character perform in chapter seven? In what ways does this character give the reader access to a different understanding of the Easter Rising than Willie’s?

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Onward, into a disturbing account of one of the most wretched episodes in the wretched history of warfare. Chapter Four:

Summary

Months have passed at the front and Willie is upset that Gretta has not responded to his letters. He writes to her declaring his love, and retains the hope that she loves him too, but feels more and more angry and humiliated by her lack of reply. Before leaving Gretta, it transpires that Willie has asked her to marry him, and she refused. He once understood the reasons for her refusal, but longing for her without remittance, he writes short letters that veer between lumpen description of life in the trenches and blurted declarations of love. Writing in this way sharpens his self-consciousness and anxiety.

It is now spring and the Fusiliers decamp to a section of line near the village of St Julien. The men relax somewhat, skinny dipping in the river together and playing football. They find a joy in their momentary leisure together, though the noise and bustle of the front is near. Disarmed and naked, they talk frankly at the riverside; amidst the aimless chatter Captain Pasley speaks of his worries about the manning of his father’s farm at home.

Soon the men are back in the line. They first make it their business to tidy a trench once badly kept up by French soldiers. They settle into a time of distracted dull fear there, until the day when, as Captain Pasley censors his men’s letters home and the platoon are relaxing after a satisfying meal, Christy Moran sees a strange yellow cloud floating over no-mans land.

It is a German gas attack, but the men do not know this. It is an inexplicable sight as it advances towards them. At first the fusiliers fire into the yellow fog, but cease firing when there is no sign of an advancing enemy. The lieutenants consult their commanding officers, who are as nonplussed as their subordinates. The fog eventually reaches an Algerian trench to the platoon’s right. Screams of torment there prompt Pasley to the thought that the smoke is poisonous. The fog reaches the Dublin fusiliers’ trench and inspires panic as Irishmen, like the Algerians, begin to die. Christy Moran asks for permission for the company to retreat, but Pasley declares he has no orders to allow it. As the chlorine begins to fall into their section and men die in the trench, Pasley assents to withdrawal, but refuses to move from his post. Willie and the still-surviving men climb the parados and run for their lives amidst the general terrified scatter, every man for himself. Officers behind the line stand confused by the soldiers’ sudden, mysterious capitulation. Eventually, Willie finds himself in the air beyond the gas, and collapses.

He awakens to the aftermath of the attack. Blinded men move in lines. The countryside is poisoned. Eventually, later in the week, reserve battalions move up to replace the massacred soldiers. Willie is bereft. He makes his way back to the section of trench and amidst the now-grotesque bodies of his comrades discovers the corpse of Captain Pasley. He encounters Father Buckley, blessing the bodies of the dead. The two awkwardly console one another. Over five hundred men of their regiment are dead. Later, Willie (a protestant) politely refuses communion with the priest.

When Willie sees Christy Moran again, he is furious at his sergeant’s brutal assessment of Captain Pasley’s refusal to run. As more men are brought up to the line to replace his comrades, he also begins to have an inkling of the nature of the war.

The survivors see out the summer into the freezing winter of 1916, hearing of more Irish losses at Gallipoli. They are posted away from the front. Willie’s platoon traverse the countryside. His memories of building reviving within him, Willie admires the roads and particularly enjoys singing marching songs, especially the ubiquitous ‘Tipperary’. Willie’s singing voice is admired but has been weakened by his faulty lungs, damaged by the chlorine gas. He also notes the damage to himself. He mourns Clancy and Williams and feels haunted by the ghost of Captain Pasley. The grief of death has lodged within him, and he secretly rails against the world.

Questions

A shocking and moving read, this chapter, as it surely must be if well written.

The stalling of Willie and Gretta’s relationship while Willie fights abroad is perhaps unexpected, given the account of the relationship we read in the first chapter. She is, to use a phrase used in theory, an absent presence at this point in the story. What does the silence of Gretta suggest to you about this couple’s relationship? In what ways might her silence reflect a larger truth about the presence of women in literature of the First World War?

Captain Pasley, who reads Willie’s letters to Gretchen, judges that Willie is one of those soldiers who “tried to write the inside of their heads” when writing home (p.43). What do you think is meant by this? Given the evidence of Willie’s letter to Gretta (p.38), is Pasley’s assessment accurate? How would you describe Barry’s presentation of Willie in this letter? What does it reveal about Willie?

The narration often uses free indirect speech: that is, the voices of the novel’s characters often merge with or are articulated through the voice of the narrator. This creates interesting ways of manipulating and moving between different characters’ perspectives, but inevitably in the story thus far, we have most often presented with the perspective of Willie Dunne. In this chapter, however, the omniscient narrator is used to voice the thoughts of Captain Pasley as he censors the men’s mail (see the paragraph that begins, “Captain Pasley was in his new dugout writing his forms…” (p.42)). Why might the author decide to give the reader access to the thoughts of this particular character at this particular moment in the novel, before the gas attack? In what way is Pasley’s reading relevant, in terms of storytelling, to the events that follow? How effective is this narratological shift of perspective?

Barry’s description of the gas attack is memorable and shocking. He cleverly selects surprising foci in his description of the attack that make it particularly strange and frightening. What does the narrative describe that emphasises the transformation of the familiar world into one completely unfamiliar and peculiarly terrifying?

“All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be.” Reading this sentence, and the whole of the gas attack sequence (p.43-8), how does Barry create tension within the text?

As Barry builds a sense of scene in this chapter, he returns again and again to the colour yellow— at first “yellow world” of the wild flowers and caterpillars that hang on them, then the “strange yellow-tinged cloud” itself, and finally the “yellow world” that Willie awakes to, with its men wearing bleached uniforms and yellow, greased faces. What could these different kinds of yellowness represent?

“If it were a battle proper, these men would never have turned tail. They would have fought to the last man in the trenches and put up with that and cursed their fate” (p.48). Besides this odd (and surely redundant) bit of moralising narration, Barry is, I think, both clever and subtle in reflecting on a broad sense of shame felt in the aftermath of the attack. Why could a gas attack be seen as particularly shameful in the theatre of war? In what ways does the use of poison gas differ to other more traditional forms of warfare? How do the characters focused on in the novel respond to the trauma of the gas attack?

The passage at the end of the chapter, where Willie finds pleasure in singing marching songs like ‘Tipperary’, seems significant to the narrative as a whole. The novel, after all, is called ‘A Long, Long Way’, a metalepsis of the fuller song title, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (see the entry ‘Opening Lines’ and comments beneath for an explanation of this term). Song, therefore, has meaning in this text (and indeed was ubiquitous in the trenches during the war: see these entries about the Ragtime Infantry and read these poems by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney.) At the end of this chapter, how does Willie’s singing, and song more generally, cause us to reflect on the gas attack on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers? How significant is it that now, “when Willie sang too mightily he felt a dire need to cough” (p.58)?

Some thoughts

The gas attack in this chapter was exceptionally well written. Before writing an appreciation, it’s best to make clear that I currently have questions about Barry’s presentation of the attack at St Julien. This is presumptuous to a degree— Barry has plainly read deeply around the subject— but I’m still trying marry up elements of the historical record with the movements of Willie’s company.

On first reading, I had assumed that the gas attack depicted in the book is the gas attack of the early evening of 22nd April 1915, the beginning of the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, itself the first battle of the murderous Second Battle of Ypres. I thought this because this was indeed the first German gas attack of the First World War, and the absolute incomprehension of the Irish troops in the face of the new weapon depicted in the book is more readily explicable than it would be in any depiction of the later gas attack of the 24th May, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were massacred. The April attack took place, as depicted in the novel, during the day-time: moreover, there was an Irish presence in the line during the attack of the 24th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers being positioned north of Wieltje, though not in a position that precisely reflects that described in the novel.

The attack of the 24th May 1915 is the more likely source of the massacre described in the novel: 666 men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ were in the line that day, and of that number, 645 men died. This chimes with Willie’s observation that there were “five hundred men and more of Willie’s regiment dead” (p.53). Crucially however this gas attack took place at night, at 2.30 in the morning, quite unlike the attack described in the book. The question that presents itself, then, is what Irish battalion Willie is part of? Willie’s first letter home in the book gives as his address the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers… Fermoy” (p.16) yet even with joining up in August 1914, and training in Fermoy in December of that year, I can’t see how Willie would have seen action at all near St. Julien in May (as far as I can discover, the second battalion of the RDF was moved from Harrow to Bolougne in August of 1914).

I’m assuming that I’m missing something important here, and I’d appreciate any pointers from military historians as to how to make sense of Barry’s timeline in the novel. Of course, some might say that I’m making a category error here in bothering about this stuff. It’s fiction, you know? I think these things do matter in understanding a novel, however. If Barry has decided to conflate these two attacks, then he has done so with a purpose. That purpose would be well worth speculating on, especially as the presentation of the gas attack is so effective, so moving, so shocking. If however, I’m simply short of information, then that of course is well worth knowing too.

I don’t want to speculate on what is probably a matter of my own ignorance. The gas attack depicted in the novel may be historically accurate and it may not be. Indeed, the virtues of historical accuracy can weigh against the virtues of drama or plot or authorial intention, and art is one of the only pursuits in which we can say without blushing that sometimes by making things up we can get closer to the truth of things. Yet interesting ethical and aesthetic questions are opened up here regarding the lengths of literary invention desirable or permissible in writing a historical novel (as alluded to in my earlier post on the novel form).

Especially, I want to say, when reading something as convincing as Barry’s gas attack. What a piece of writing it is.

The great risk in writing about a First World War gas attack is to fall into cliché and simply retread where others have gone before. Two British works of art overhang any depiction of gas warfare during the first world war; Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, of course, and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’. Both are referenced in Barry’s account of the St. Julien attack: in his description of “faces [that] were contorted like devils’ in a book of admonition” and the “long lines of men going back along the road, with weird faces, their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front”. A-level Literature students should as a matter of course read Owen’s and Barry’s texts together here, exploring their commonalities and differences.

Yet it seems to me that Barry’s creation stands well clear of the shadow of these more famous texts, and, by mark of its invention, to signal towards texts both more marginal and imaginative. In terms of the A-level exam, I would also want to explore the narrative strategy found in Robert Frost’s ‘Range Finding’ to explore how Barry uses the presentation of the natural world to momentarily decentre the human experience of war. Nature, it seems plain, is both a consolation and a source of grief in Barry’s novel, as it was for many of the poet-soldiers of the First World War. Its fecund life and beauty is a counterpoint to the ugly, wilful and mechanical destruction of man. The horror of the foaming caterpillars, fizzing grass, dying trees and silenced birds in the path of the chorine gas speak quite as loudly of the directionless violence of man’s death-dealing as does Barry’s horrifying description of the massacre of the fusiliers.

Another text I felt at the edge of Barry’s reference, peculiar though it may seem to some, is HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898). Peculiar because Wells’ story of an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars might seem, at first blush, an irrelevance to Barry’s staunchly realist text. Yet Wells’ novel was one of the first to imagine such devastating gas attacks: Wells’ invading Tripod machines drop asphyxiating ‘black smoke’ over the cities and towns of Southern England in their march on London. Now, Jules Verne imagined a freezing gas used in artillery shells by dastardly Germans in his 1879 novel ‘The Begum’s Fortune’: but it is the message regarding imperialism that is made explicit at the start of Wells’ novel that I feel makes it peculiarly relevant to Barry’s novel. The narrator, who has lived through the Martian invasion, takes to task those who complain of the inhumanity of the invaders:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

It strikes me that the political roots of warfare are understated in the novel thus far, as the author focuses on the personal experience and horror of war. Yet in this description of the supposed inhumanity of the alien invaders and their deadly technology, Wells performs a similar trick to Barry. Colonialism and Imperial Wars—human pursuits, of which the First World War is a prime example— are refigured as assaults from beyond earthly nature, beyond humanity. Both writers manage to make the precarious empire of man both utterly strange and frightening. Indeed, I want to say that the gas cloud in chapter four is one of Barry’s most memorable characters yet: a “dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along”, the disowned monster of the terrible and grasping intellect of man.

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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.

The new BBC adaptation of 'Birdsong' brings the First World War to our TV screens. (Photo: BBC / Working Title)

The big news in TV in Britain this week is all about a new adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much-loved novel, Birdsong. ‘Sherlock’, it seems, has captured the nation’s hearts, and established the BBC as “the home of must-watch Sunday night drama”. ‘Sherlock’ is certainly doing something right– I’ve had one student ask me about reading the original stories, he so loved the newest Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation. I eagerly pushed him on. There is almost no reading pleasure as purely enjoyable as reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries.

I’m hoping that the TV adaptation of Birdsong will have the same effect on other students at Southfields– to run off and get the original book, or at least be inspired to learn more about the First World War and its literature.

Here’s a confession, though. I teach AS English Literature; I teach First World War literature. Yet I’ve never read ‘Birdsong’. I feel vaguely guilty about this every year. It is apparently the 13th most popular book that the British reading public has: there has to be a reason for that popularity.

So, I’m hoping that Abi Morgan’s adaptation inspires me too. The reviews seem to be good. I’m hoping that it’ll be something more than your average romantic historical drama– something more than some First World War booms and busts. We’ll see! Birdsong begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9.00pm.

The HMS Hogue and HMS Aboukir, sunk on September 22, 1914: scavenged, 2011. 

A disturbing story that first emerged in the Autumn has found new prominence in the pages of Private Eye this month. Concerning the fate of three British warships sunk at the start of the First World War, it has the capacity both to surprise and disturb. After the traditional acts of remembrance that take place in November, the ongoing story of the wrecks of HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy serve as a chilly reminder that, whatever the ethical standards the rest of us strive to live by, national and international commerce works by its own rules.

The three British battleships were sunk by a German U-boat not far off the coast of The Netherlands on the 22nd of September, 1914. In total 1,459 men were killed. The site where the ships sank might, you might think, constitute an internationally protected war grave. The reality is quite different.

In 1954 the remains of the sunken cruisers were sold by the British government (during an age of austerity greater than our own) to a German salvage company. Today, these rights to salvage have been bought by companies who have reportedly begun taking apart the British ships using “heavy duty claws”. The raw materials that make up the fabric of the ships– iron, steel, copper– are now so valuable that tearing up the ships for scrap is economically lucrative. The Eye follows up the work of the heritage campaign group Mortimer in bringing this issue to light, highlighting our current government’s lack of action to protect this resting place for the War Dead.

In doing so, Private Eye is following its own honourable tradition of pointing out hypocricy. The Eye is Britain’s most famous satirical magazine, a magazine for intelligent people who haven’t lost their principles or their sense of humour– and the earlier you start reading it, probably the better.

Crowds cheer and wave outside Buckingham Palace on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

If you’re starting at Southfields Community College as a Year 12 Student on Tuesday, congratulations: you’ve read your Starter Pack! Welcome to our AS literature course. You’ve been directed here because this is the blog that we use to help prepare you for your exam at the end of the year. We’re excited to have you on board.

Before you move on to the task set for you here, why not roam around the website. Start with our Welcome page at the bottom of the ‘Recent Posts’ column you’ll find on the right– it briefly explains the subject of the course and the purpose of this blog. Check out some of the articles on Move Him Into the Sun relating to the First World War, and note how last year’s students used them to engage in discussion (‘Poppy Wars’ gives you a flavour of the kind of interesting things we find ourselves debating). Click on words and phrases in the ‘Category Cloud’ and ‘Themes, Issues and Events’ boxes to introduce yourself to some of the recurrent themes in our study of First World War literature. If you’d like, you can even ask me a question by clicking on the ‘Ask Mr. Griffiths’ tab at the top of the blog. I can’t promise you a satisfactory answer, but I’ll do my best to help you! Take a look around– see what interests you.

We’ll be using this blog throughout the year to widen our reading and search for meaning in the poetry and prose that we read, its unifying subject: the First World War.

Now, I don’t know how much you know about the First World War. I don’t know anything about the First World War! you may be thinking. I’ve made a terrible mistake! might follow on from this. Goodbye, cruel world! would almost certainly be an excessive reaction, and if you’re thinking this, I’d call a doctor. But don’t panic. I find that most people who begin the course know little about the conflict: one year a student asked me if Henry VIII was king when the war started. She ended the year with a ‘B’ and went on to write one of the best A2 essays I’ve ever read. Ignorance is no crime: and why are you doing an A-level, if not to learn?

By the end of the year you’ll know the history of the war, through the study of the many brilliant poems, books, memoirs and plays written by those effected by it. The only crime is to be incurious– or to dismiss the subject before you start. I’m not interested in the First World War! you may object. Here I quote Yoda from Star Wars: “You will be. You will be”. Why? Because there is no aspect of your life, or that of countless millions of others, that has not been affected by this conflict. You just don’t know why yet.

Off you go. Take a look around.

Back again? Excellent.

In ‘Starter for 12’  I’m going to post some links to some websites that will help you get to grips with how the First World War started. We’ll begin at the beginning, with the origins of the First World War.

The origins of the First World War are, to someone new to the subject, very difficult to grasp. The war began almost a hundred years ago, in a world very different from our own. Nations handled their foreign policies in a way that seems, well, foreign to us. People felt patriotic in a way we find hard to understand. Many welcomed the outbreak of war: they were excited by it. These things can seem very strange at a distance. Yet, as difficult as it can be, I’d like you to try and acquaint yourself with some of the explanations for how the war began. It’s going to be tough, but… let’s try and be smarter than Baldrick!

"There must've been a moment when not being a war on went away, right, and being a war on came along."

Over at FirstWorldWar.com you’ll find a good summary of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War One. Read ‘How It Began’, ‘The Causes of World War One’, ‘Archduke Ferdinand’s Assassination’ and ‘The July Crisis’. Don’t worry if it’s all too much too take in at once; but make notes to help you understand the European Alliance system that so disastrously led to war. You’ll also find two articles on the BBC website that help explain the origins of the war: the first, by Dr Gary Sheffield, argues that war with an aggressive and autocratic Germany was inevitable: a little controversial, but well argued. The second, by Dan Cruikshank, conveys the fear of German militarism that existed in Britain before the war.

I’ll ask to see the notes you’ve made from these websites in the lesson we have on Wednesday.

If you have access to Youtube, you’ll find some interesting documentaries that can give you a broad idea of what life in Britain was like before the war. The best one for our purposes is Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain: The Road to War. Watch this to understand the social tensions in Britain from 1906 to 1914: and, if you’ve got time, you might even go on to watch its follow-up, ‘The Great War’. Again, as a matter of good practice, you should make notes to help you contextualise the poetry, books and plays that you are going to read.

I will, of course, give you further information and extracts that will help explain how ‘the War to end all Wars’ began. This ‘Starter for 12’ task, however, is a crucial opportunity for you to inform yourself on how it all began– and impress us with your enthusiasm and ability to take on this, your English Literature AS level.

We begin, as we must, with history. Yet within the week we’ll be reading together some of the marvellous poetry that the terrible and momentous First World War has given us.

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