Memoirs


Three big names from First World War literature feature this week after a trawl through the infosphere, looking for First World War literary tidbits. The BBC and the Guardian come up trumps again with features on two of the poets whose work is studied on the AQA AS English literature course, while a reminiscence of lost childhood provides us with an unexpected view of the life of Vera Brittain.

Edward Thomas.

Poems by Edward Thomas and Robert Frost can be found in Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, and you can find notes for the poems on Move Him Into the Sun. Frost was an unregarded young poet and Thomas a prolific but frustrated critic when they met in 1913, beginning a friendship that would change the lives of both men. Frost received encouragement from a sympathetic Thomas, who gave Frost’s work supportive and perceptive reviews. Thomas, on the other hand, was coaxed by Frost to convert the poetic prose of Thomas’ writings on nature into an experiment in poetry. Each was a catalyst to the achievement of the other, and a Guardian article by Matthew Hollis, ‘Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the Road to War’, brilliantly outlines the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Hollis writes as the author of a new book on Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which is this week serialised by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week. You can listen to readings from the book here on iPlayer.

We can also thank the BBC for a radio documentary that allows us an insight into the life of Vera Brittain through the reminiscences of her daughter, Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is, of course, one of the great memoirs of life during World War One, recounting the experiences of an intelligent young woman who suffered appalling personal loss during the conflict. Baroness Shirley Williams— perhaps better known today than her mother, and a significant political figure in late twentieth century British politics– is a likeable and sympathetic narrator of her own childhood years in ‘The House I Grew Up In’, a documentary aired on Radio 4 this week. Her mother emerges as an incredibly principled woman– a pacifist, anti-fascist and feminist– if somewhat distant from her daughter: a woman for whom life was, it seems, never easy. This is a fascinating view of Brittain from the engaging Williams. Not to be missed.

Shirley Williams with her mother, Vera Brittain.

Two soldiers make their way back to the front from Victoria railway station.

What was life like for the average soldier in the First World War? It is, of course, a crucial question that every literature student studying the war should be able to answer. If we don’t know what the experience of the average Tommy was, how can we make reasonable judgements on the representation of the war by poets, dramatists and novelists?

Is this poem sentimental? Is that dramatist being sensational or realistic? Is this novelist describing the ordinary– or the extraordinary? You can’t function as a literary critic without making these kind of judgements. And of course, if you’re an AS student with AQA, you’ll know that one of the Assessment Objectives that you must meet in coursework and examinations is to “Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received”. Which means that when studying for the AQA AS exam, a knowledge of history matters.

So: here are some links that will help you to understand what life on the front line was like for your average infantryman and soldier.

The BBC’s history website, as ever, provides excellent resources for those studying the First World War. Their six-part World War One movie presents an accessible visual account of a soldier’s life, from ‘Volunteering and Recruitment’ onwards. The site also has a powerful account of his wartime experience from Harry Patch, one of the last British survivors of WWI.

Durham University also has a fabulous website entitled ‘What was it really like to fight in the First World War?’. Its gateway allows you to explore the everyday life and combat experience of soldiers through a number of primary sources. I found the page that describes the structure of a typical infantry regiment during the war very useful- it can be really confusing trying to grasp the hierarchy of platoons, companies, regiments, battalions and so on. Well, it’s all here.

Chris Baker’s website, ‘The Long, Long Trail’ goes into even more detail about the composition of an infantry battalion, and you can find it here. But it is his resource, ‘Soldier’s Life’, that every conscientious AS student should read. You can learn about Basic training in Abergele; look at birds-eye views of trench designs; look at a table of all the crimes a British soldier could commit, and the punishments they might face; and see, movingly, the Army telegrams and forms that were sent home in the event of death. This is one of the best First World War resources on the web.

Over at the History Learning Site there’s a short account of what an infantryman’s life was like, with especial focus on Lewis gun teams. These were the men who wore what was known as the suicide badge, ‘LG’. It was rumoured that the badge meant death if captured by the enemy, such was the loathing reserved for enemy machine gunners. In fact, as Robert Graves testifies in ‘Goodbye to All That’, neither German nor British Prisoners of War were safe when captured by the enemy: loathing and mission expediency all too often led to impromptu executions.

Finally, the essential way for a literature student to learn about the life of soldiers during the First World War is to read the memoirs produced by those who fought. When asked what memoir is best for A level students to read about the war, I always recommend the book mentioned above: ‘Goodbye to All That‘. Graves’ book is vivid but unsentimental. Graves himself is humane but can be almost chilly in his objectivity when writing about his wartime experiences. This temperamental combination of heart and head is an excellent feature for a war writer to have (the best example of this kind of writing isn’t a WWI memoir at all, but George Orwell’s later Spanish Civil War memoir, ‘Homage to Catalonia’). Graves also gives an important first-hand account of Sassoon’s war protest, vital for anyone studying WWI literature to know about.

Of two other memoirs I particularly recommend, the first is Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised ‘Memoirs of An Infantry Officer’. Sassoon’s testimony about the First World War is so interesting and central to First World War literary studies that you really must read this book, even if only through extracts. It’s not an easy book to read– but it certainly is rewarding. The second is Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’. This book provides a much needed German perspective on the fighting, and has the pointed quality of a well whittled stake: Junger was something of a ‘happy warrior’, but is never sparing on the realities of combat. There are many other excellent memoirs, however: the opinions of this reviewer at World War One Battlefields can be trusted.

Finally, for the adventurous reader (or the foolhardy) I recommend David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’— or at least the first chapter of Jones’ book. This is a tough read for some, but the beginning is very accessible as an account of decamping from training ground to war. Jones’ account is also unlike those above, because it is the account of a private rather than an officer: reason enough to read him. Buy a photocopying card, go down the library, copy the first chapter and see what you make of it. You may push on with Jones to the end.

As a last recommendation, for brevity and precision in describing what life for the average Tommy was like, there is a short but excellent book published by Osprey books, ‘British Tommy 1914-18’. Watch out, though, this one’s expensive: buy it used, maybe. In fact, as with all the books mentioned here, seek them out second-hand first, at sites like AbeBooks.com, or down your local second hand bookstore. They’ll be cheaper, and you’ll be recycling. Save your money for the university fees.