Politics


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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. In the act of doing so, he stirs the man in the bed next door. An ugly Southerner, the man leaps up and knocks his Bible into Willie’s full chamber pot. Mortified, Willie offers the man his own family Bible as a compensation. This act at first placates the agitated Southerner: but swiftly the man turns violent, leaping on Willie and strangling him. Willie, bemused, offers no resistance. Eventually the Southerner’s attack peters out, ending in a sardonic declaration that a murder would stop him being sent to France. The man then proceeds to chat amiably with Willie about betting. He introduces himself as from Jessie Kirwan, from Cork. 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 a beginning of 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, Australians, 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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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.

 

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.

An England Shirt with Poppy Badge.

Who needs a calender when you’ve got the media?

You know you’re at the end of June when Tennis inexplicably hits the front pages of the red tops. When our supposedly paedophile-hating press publish front-page pictures of groups of pretty young schoolgirls celebrating exam results, it’s the end of August. And when the first appearance of a story about a council replacing festive decorations with Diwali lights appears in the The Daily Mail, you know the Twelve Weeks of Christmas are drawing to their end.

Just as the year has seasons, so does journalism. And, just as surely as the fall of the first leaf heralds the coming of Autumn, so the appearance of a poppy controversy in the press tells us we’re in the first week of November.

This year’s controversy at least seems to have a little more substance than last year’s desperate Jon Snow-baiting for not wearing a poppy whilst reading the news.

The England Football Team play Spain in a friendly football match at Wembley on Saturday. Friendly feeling towards FIFA– the world football governing authority– has been hard to find in the press, however. This year’s poppy controversy has revolved around the wearing of poppy badges, which the English FA proposed to have embroidered on players’ shirts for the game. The news broke last weekend, when it was reported that FIFA had refused the FA permission to do so. All hell broke loose as Fleet Street rallied to the poppy-wearing cause, and FIFA stubbornly stood by its position that the wearing of political and religious symbols is banned in international football (commercial symbols, it seems, being A-O-K).

By midweek, the government had got involved in the sporting spat, with the Sports minister writing a letter to FIFA stating “the British public feel very strongly about this issue which is seen as an act of national remembrance to commemorate those who gave their lives in the service of their country. It is not religious or political in any way. Wearing a poppy is a display of national pride, just like wearing your country’s football shirt.” To which FIFA, by letter, replied: “”We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardising the neutrality of football. Therefore, we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match shirt cannot be authorised.”

By today, a compromise between the FA and FIFA meant that poppies would indeed be worn by the English football team, embroidered onto the black armbands that the England team had already been given permission to wear. The Sun declared victory: ‘Prince William forces FIFA climb-down on wearing poppies’.

And yet, amidst the arm-wrestling, quieter voices were at risk of being drowned out. The director of the British Legion said, when it appeared that the key concession of the players being allowed to wear a poppy would not be made: ‘There are other ways to honour the poppy than by wearing it on a shirt… The Legion never insists that the poppy be worn or insists that others allow it to be worn. We are grateful when people wear it as a sign of respect, but the decision must be a free one – after all, the poppy represents sacrifices made in the cause of our freedoms.”

The issue has generated a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. To read some contributors to the Daily Mail making the case for the poppy being worn, look here. To find a different point of view, read Marina Hyde in The Guardian.

The central questions surrounding the poppy controversy are worth thinking about, however. FIFA refused to allow the poppy to be worn because it was, in its opinion, a political symbol. Many in Britain seem to think it is not.  

What is politics, though– and what is political? A broad definition of the political would be those thoughts and actions which are related to the state, the people, and the power weilded by both. The question is whether the poppy can be seen as a symbol of a political world-view, or whether to see it as such a symbol is to distort its meaning.

The poppy, of course, began as a badge of remembrance for those who died fighting in the First World War. It has, however, become a more complicated symbol since then. Different people and different groups, often depending on their politics or worldview, apply different meanings to its wearing. So that for some it represents a remembrance of those who have died for Britain abroad; for others, all who have died in armed conflict, no matter what the country; some wear it with pride, some with regret. Some marginal groups actively seek to turn the wearing of the poppy into a political issue, like the racist EDF, or Muslims Against Crusades. The majority, however, probably prefer to leave its meaning a little fuzzy: to see it as an inclusive symbol, and live with the contradictions. Seen in this way, the yearly controversy about the poppy often seems to be a battle to establish just exactly what the poppy means– who should wear it, and why.

What do you think? What does the poppy mean to you? Is the poppy really politically value free (this vote in the left-leaning Guardian suggests not)? Is the act of remembrance of the war dead removed from politics– is it in some way higher than politics? Or is wearing a poppy an inevitably political act– a symbol that can represent a view of the world that others might reasonably reject or object to?

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.

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.

An early draft of 'The General' by Siegfried Sassoon- with accompanying cartoon!

NOTES

A General breezily greets a company of his men as they move up the line towards Arras. His incompetent planning will lead to their deaths.

The General: Pointedly anonymous in the poem. The General is a figurehead for the kind of planning that led to massive loss of life during the attritional warfare on the Western Front– Arras being a particularly grim example of the human cost of the war. The Second Battle of Arras was a diversionary battle that took place in April-May 1917 and was intended to draw strength away from a larger French offensive to the south at Aisne. While very successful at first, gaining ground and employing innovative new tactics, by the end of the offensive such advantage had been largely lost and over 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were dead.

STRUCTURE: ‘The General’ is written with a distinctive and upbeat rhythm that reflects the General’s manner and which ironically contrasts with the deaths that result from his incompetence. This rhythm is anapaestic. An anapaest is a three syllable foot that comprises of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. So, for example, the word ‘anapaest’ is, in fact, anapaestic, as we see here: a-na-PAEST. An anapaestic rhythm bounds and gallops forwards, with that third syllable in every foot being accentuated. There are four feet in every line of ‘The General’, meaning that this meter is known as ‘Anapaestic Tetrameter’. If we break down the rhythm in this way (an act known as scansion) then we can follow this rhythm. The second line scans, for example, like this: “When we MET / him last WEEK / on our WAY / to the LINE / ”. It is a strong, striding, strident rhythm, suitable for a poem such as this.

“‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said’”: the breeziness of the General and his pleasant demeanor is used as a powerful contrast to the consequences of his actions. Sassoon’s satirical representation of the General is clever: it suggests (perhaps unfairly) that his upbeat nature somehow reflects a lack of seriousness with which he takes his charge.

“on our way to the line.”: the soldiers are making their way to the front.

“most of ’em dead”: the inverted comma signifies the lower-class accent of the speaker and dropping of the ‘th’ sound. This class voice gives the poem a more subversive tone. The consequences of the cheery General’s actions are devastating.

“And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine”: the representatives of the General staff— those soldiers working administratively at the General’s command— were often intensely disliked by the average soldier. Here, their incompetence disgusts the soldiers.

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack”: the soldiers see the General as a ‘card’, or ‘character’. Their tone is generous, given the physical effort they are making (“grunted”). The names of the soldiers are common and denote that they are ‘typical’ Tommies. This is, obviously, an emotive move: the irony of the men’s appreciative statement shortly becomes clear.

“slogged up to Arras”: The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917 (see above).

“But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”: the single, end-stopped line at the end of the poem is dramatic, and is the pointed lesson of this poem: that the General and his staff are responsible for the death of the men.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This must be the most effective condemnation of the General Staff written during the First World War. Sassoon and Graves experienced firsthand the poor planning of the General Staff at the front; in Chapter 15 of Goodbye to All That, Graves’ memoir of the war, one particularly memorable fiasco is the La Bassee offensive of August 1915, where the Royal Welch were gassed by their own side.]

 

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