Soldiers’ Songs


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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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‘The Silent One’

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.
NOTES

In this poem a soldier takes cover while facing a barrier of uncut barbed wire in No-Man’s land. Two men lie dead on the wire, one of whom the soldier knows. A commanding officer points a possible way through the wire, one that would mean certain death to the soldier; the soldier refuses to take it.

The Silent One: The title refers first to the man dead lying on the wires— his silence obviously indicating his death. This is an example of metonymy— where one word is substituted for another that it suggests. It is perhaps unsurprising that Gurney, a composer, associates silence with death. Without wanting to see Gurney and his poetry simply through his other career as a musician, ‘The Silent One’ is very aware of what can (or can’t) be heard: of sounds, of speaking, and of silence.

STRUCTURE: The structure of ‘The Silent One’ is only partly organized according to rhyme: it begins with two rhyming couplets, but the end-rhyme thereafter is deliberately imperfect and sporadic. “Unbroken” and “unshaken” near-rhyme. ‘Seen’ weakly rhymes with the second unaccented syllable of “whizzing”, but does rhyme with ‘screen’ in the last line. In the midst of these half-rhymes “clothes” and “oaths”, either rhyme or half-rhyme, depending on how you read the poem.

The reason for the weakness of the end-rhyming in ‘The Silent One’ is, I think, because so much is going on within the lines themselves: you can find words and phrases repeated throughout the poem in quite a complicated way. We find “wires” and “unbroken wires” (twice), “chatter” and “chattered”; “accent”, “darkness”, “line”, “no”, “retreated” and “again” repeated likewise. Why does Gurney do this?  Perhaps because this poem is written in a colloquial style and, in the manner of everyday speech, parenthetical. What I mean by ‘parenthetical’ is to say that the poem contains lots of little asides, just as everyday speech has: and the extensive use of punctuation within the line (dashes, colons, semi-colons and brackets) designates the speaker’s leaps to other thoughts or linked observations. This creates a confidential and intimate air to the poem— which contains, suitably enough, a startling and frank admission— an informality perhaps at odds with a strong use of end-rhyme.

“Who died on the wires…”: The poem begins, unusually, as if running on from the title. The wire, of course, is barbed wire, used massively across Europe during the Great War as a defence on the Western Front (for illustration, see the thickets of barbed wire which I use as the banner for this site). The use of barbed wire is representative of the fact that for much of the First World War, armies were defending territory in a static manner. Barbed wire impeded the approach of attackers; many of the soldiers of both sides died collapsed and died on the wires (read more about the use of barbed wire in the Great War, here).

“Who… had chattered through / infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:”: the speaker, a soldier, knows the dead man facing him on the wires. The intimacy of his observation— referring to the man’s “hours of life” and “infinite lovely chatter”— contrasts powerfully with the directness of Gurney’s description of his comrade’s fate. Note the reference to the man’s Buckinghamshire accent as a kind of symbol of his humanity: there is again a strong contrast to be made here between the musicality of his voice and his silence in death.

“Yet faced unbroken wires;”: Before an attack, a major purpose of shelling was to break up the barbed wire defences of the enemy, and so clear the way for an assault. Teams of men would also be sent into No-Man’s Land to clear the wire. These attempts were often unsuccessful and to be entangled in or slowed by barbed wire in No-Man’s land was to be a sitting duck for enemy gunfire. The use of colons and semi-colons here draw the poem back to this fateful moment for the dead officer: leaping backward in time within a sentence like this is called analepsis.

“stepped over, and went  / A noble fool, faithful to his stripes— ”: continuing his description of the man’s journey into no-man’s land, we find that he is an officer (“his stripes” refers to the number of chevrons on his uniform, showing his rank). He was, the speaker says, a “noble fool” for following the order to attack, which meant his death: the odds were clearly against his survival.

“and ended.”: The conclusion of this sentence, Bernard Bergonzi writes, “matches anything in Sassoon and Owen in its terrible directness”. The terseness of this ending is indeed shocking— though it is the rather indirect nature of the sentence that leads up to the conclusion (encompassing observations about the man’s dead body, a reference to his “lovely chatter” and accent, and his part in the action before his death) that disarms the reader before this “direct” conclusion.

“But I weak, hungry and willing only for the chance of line— to fight in the line,”: the exhaustion of the speaker is admitted. This documentary honesty is a feature of the poem. The soldier is “willing”, despite his exhaustion, only because of the chance to fight. Again, the punctuation here is subtle: the dash seems to precede a necessary clarification or explanation that the soldier did indeed want to fight.

“But I… lay down under unbroken / Wires, and saw flashes and kept unshaken”: the soldier lies down before the wire, out of enemy gunfire. Here we find another mention of the wires, and the fact that they are unbroken— this fact, and the different responses of soldiers to this fact, dominates the poem. The soldier manages to keep control of himself as the bombs explode nearby.

“Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:”: this voice— the soldier’s commanding officer’s voice— contrasts strongly with that of the ‘silent one’. The officer is detached, particular, and his accent is overly refined (“finicking”) where the Bucks man’s was expressive of his humanity.

“‘Do you think you might crawl through there— there’s a hole.’”: the phrasing of the officer’s observation— a direction offered in the form of a question— betrays hesitation. Nonetheless disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer could result in imprisonment.

“Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied— ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’”: the soldier’s refusal to follow the officer’s direction here is the dramatic heart of the poem. While this describes a grim scene, it is also possible to detect some of Gurney’s ironic humour here: as soon as the officer points a way through, the crack of a rifle in the dark is heard. This irony is clearly felt by the soldier (“I smiled”) who answers the officer in the same polite manner with which he was directed. There is something heroic about the soldier’s rational anti-heroism: indeed, ‘The Silent One’ is one of the few great poems of the First World War that courts the same grim, fatalistic humour that is found in many of the common soldiers’ songs (like ‘The Old Barbed Wire’: “If you want to find the old battalion / They’re hanging on the old barbed wire”).

“There was no hole… after tearing of clothes…”: the soldier’s observation regarding the impossibility of attacking through the ‘hole’ that the officer points to can be read here in a number of ways. Earnestly, as if in self-justification? With muted anger? Wearily, in disbelief at the uselessness of the order? With wry amusement as the situation is recalled? It is a mark of the clever balance of the poem that all these complex responses are plausible. In a sense, the soldier is responding to what would be, outside of war, an insane situation; to be directed towards what could almost certainly be a useless death. Gurney here humanely dramatises the fine line between the noble and foolish gesture.

“Kept flat, and watched the darkness…”: Gurney describes the soldier’s consequent actions in defiantly non-heroic terms: he lies prone, out of the line of fire.

“hearing bullets whizzing— / And thought of music— ”: the soldier listens in the darkness. This acuteness of hearing, and the ability to listen to others and judge accurately what precisely is being suggested or said, is important in the poem. The reference to thoughts of music imply that this is a poem composed by Gurney from personal experience.

“swore deep heart’s deep oaths / (Polite to God)”: the confidential yet frank tone of the poem comes through strongly here. The little aside here, in parenthesis, reads here like a joke after a heartfelt confession of fear (I didn’t blaspheme as I swore, he bluffly reassures the reader).

“…retreated and came on again, / Again retreated— and a second time faced the screen.”: the vacillation here— the quite open use of the word ‘retreated’ here, and the return again and again to the wire— effectively describes the actions of a man facing an insurmountable object (“the screen” of wire). On this inconclusive and definitely non-heroic note— the wire halting forward movement— the poem appropriately ends.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Silent One’ can be compared to any other poem that depicts or lauds heroism (or indeed condemns or describes cowardice) as it usefully injects a powerful and documentary sense of realism to the momentary dilemmas of the front line.]

A message of joy: the war at an end.

NOTES

‘Everyone Sang’ relates Sassoon’s ecstatic— almost religious— joy on hearing soldiers singing, and is a song of praise for the men’s resiliance.

Everyone Sang: Communal singing was common in the trenches. Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Graves notes that whereas in other regiments singing was often limited to music hall numbers, Welsh soldiers sang hymns, often in Welsh. This singing, perfected in Chapel and Church, was often powerfully moving. It is possible that it is this kind of singing that Sassoon refers to. Critics have suggested that ‘Everyone Sang’ describes to soldiers’ reactions to the Armistice (Robert Graves interprets the poem in this way in ‘Goodbye to All That’). Others follow Sassoon’s own account in ‘Siegfried’s Journey’ that the poem is, rather, a more abstracted paean to change and the singing represents ‘social revolution’ (see W. Lawrence’s fascinating comment to this post, above).

STRUCTURE: ‘Everyone Sang’ is comprised of two stanzas of five lines length, rhyme scheme ABCBB.

“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;”: the “Everyone” of this poem refers to a group of men singing and celebrating. The emphatic description of ‘everyone’ singing captures the broader tone of celebration of the human spirit that this poem contains.

“I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom”: the conventional symbolism— that of a freed, flying bird embodying the human spirit— nonetheless captures the sense of release that the singing brings.

“Winging wildly across the white / Orchards and dark-green fields;”: the alliteration introduces a wheeling rhythm to the end of the stanza, until we gain the perspective of the freed bird, looking down on the countryside below. There is a real sense of the expanding horizons that the singing- and coming of peace- brings.

“on— on— and out of sight.”: a ponderous and deliberately slowed passage that reintroduces the listener as one gazing out at the freed bird as it flies away.

“Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;”: Repeating the literal phrasing of the poem’s first line, the beginning of the second verse is both literal and metaphorical. The voices sing higher and louder, but the ‘lifting’ of the voices here also suggests elevation here— a transcendental tone. This metaphor of “lifted” voices logically follows on from the prior image of flight.

“beauty came like the setting sun:”: Sassoon again uses conventional imagery, here that of the beautiful, setting sun. Sassoon uses a language here that in other hands might seem hackneyed or clichéd, but manages to convey a purity of experience. The simpler and more archetypal the imagery, perhaps, the better to evoke the emotional power of the singing men. The “setting sun” here suggests death, sublime beauty– and an end.

“My heart was shaken with tears: and horror drifted away…”: the emotional and spiritual power of the song moves the listener so that their worst thoughts and memories of the war “drifted away”. Through the singing they escape the war and rediscover their common humanity. This lifting of horror, like mist or fog, is captured in the pause denoted by the ellipses.

“O, but Everyone / Was a bird;”: the suggestive capitalisation of “Everyone” here seems to suggest that ‘everyone’ in the poem have for a short while have assumed the freedom of transcendence, of becoming more than themselves. Note the building intensity in this verse, as sub-clause follows sub-clause, leading to the cry of ‘O’, and sense of profound emotional release in the last two lines.

“and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”: The sense that the listeners experience is sublime and timeless is profound; moving beyond words, to suggest here a religious image of the eternal singing of men.

 

 

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem certainly has the most religious or spiritual tone of Stallworthy’s selection of Sassoon’s poetry. Stallworthy elsewhere praises ‘Christ and the Soldier’ as a dramatic example of Sassoon’s war poetry: and makes the keen observation that “his poetry, early and late can be seen to justify the label he attached to himself… ‘I am a religious poet’”. The question of the presence or otherwise of God during the war is a profound one, and is also tackled in Isaac Rosenburg’s ‘On Receiving News of the War’ (p.183). Outside the anthology, there are other poems similarly written about the power of song at war: ‘First Time In’ by Ivor Gurney, about encountering Welsh singers on arrival in the trenches; or to Robert Graves’ ‘Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan)’, about Welsh soldiers singing a traditional Welsh song.]

It’s St. David’s Day!

So indulge me please as I dedicate a posting to Wales and the Welsh in poetry and prose from the First World War. You should expect nothing less from a Griffiths on March 1st.

A quick story. My wife is American and over a decade ago, before we married, I took her back to visit the Welsh town where I’m from. It’s a place called Llanelli. That weekend the national rugby team were playing at Llanelli’s famous rugby ground, Stradey Park. A marching band were in attendance and the crowd, jammed into the little stadium, were singing traditional Welsh songs with gusto: Sospan Fach, Calon Lan, Cwm Rhondda. It was a great warm up to the big game. The marching band began to come down to our end of the field. My wife, a little disconcerted, points to the band.

‘What is that?’

I say, ‘It’s a marching band, clever.’

‘No, no,’ she says, laughing. ‘What is that?’

She points to the front of the band. There is a goat being led on a rope by a soldier in a red coat and white hat. People are cheering.

‘Oh, that’s the regimental goat,’ I say.

‘The regimental what?’ she says, laughing.

‘The goat,’ I say again. ‘The regimental goat. A goat that belongs to the army regiment. It’s at all the Welsh games. I think it’s called Shenkin.’

At this, the American erupts into laughter. “I love it,’ she laughed. ‘A goat. At every game. Great!’ There followed a number of comments about how small the ground was, how great the goat and the singing was. She even enjoyed watching the rugby. Reader, I married her.

Shenkin the Goat.

So why on earth was there a goat at the game?

Shenkin was the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Army regiments across the world often have peculiar traditions and rituals; a culture all of their own that their soldiers preserve. The story of the goat goes back to Victorian times and the Crimean War, when the goats were actually eaten by the soldiers. One night, after a sentry fell asleep on duty, a goat woke up the regiment as the Russian enemy started to attack, saving the men present from massacre. The Royal Welch have had a goat for a mascot ever since. Since the regimental system has always been tied to particular areas, the Royal Welch– and its goat– have represented Wales and Welsh pride for many years. And in terms of reading about the First World War in poetry and memoirs, Welshmen, the Royal Welch– and other Welsh regiments– are better represented than many others.

Why? Two great literary names, to start with: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Neither were Welshmen but both were officers with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their brilliant accounts of the First World War, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’, memorialise the actions of the Royal Welsh at infamous battles like that of Mametz Wood. These aren’t patriotic accounts: as Graves noted “Patriotism, in the trenches, was to too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out” (p.157, ‘Goodbye to All That’, Penguin 1960). But they do give intense pictures of what Welsh soldiers were like in the First World War.

Graves also spent time with the Welsh regiment (Note the difference in spellings!). The Welsh Regiment was a “rough and tough” regiment, less professional than the Royal Welch. Non-conformists and North Walian hill farmers– stolid, highly independent people– were among their ranks. Here’s an atmospheric account of the Welsh– and Graves– going to the trenches for the first time, under bombardment.

Collecting the draft of forty men we had with us, we followed… through the unlit suburbs of the town– all intensely excited by the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. None of the draft had been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sung Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when pretending not to be scared; it kept them steady. And they never sang out of tune.

We marched towards the flashes, and could soon see the flare lights curving across the distant trenches. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Presently we were among the batteries. from about two hundred yards behind us, on the left of the road, a salvo of four shells whizzed suddenly over our heads. This broke up ‘Aberystwyth’ in the middle of a verse, and sent us off balance for a few seconds; the columns of fours tangled up. The shell went hissing away eastward… (p.81)

Graves is given a lecture about managing the soldiers in the Welsh regiment on his arrival at front by Captain Dunn:

These Welshmen are peculiar. They won’t stand being shouted at. They’ll do anything if you explain the reason for it– do and die, but they have to know the reason why… They are good workmen, too. But officers must work with them, not only direct the work… (p.86)

Welsh singing is a source of constant admiration in poetry written about Welsh soldiers in the First World War. In the anthology, of course, we have Sassoon’s great poem ‘Everyone Sang’, about the celebrations at the Armistice, which you feel must have been influenced by serving in regiments of singing Welshmen:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Another great poem that doesn’t feature in the anthology is Ivor Gurney’s ‘First Time In’. Ivor Gurney is one of the most underrated war poets of the First World War: a talented composer but mentally brittle, he went mad after the war’s end. He leaves us this poem about going, like Graves, up to the front for the first time– and encountering, to his surprise and wonder, a Welsh regiment.

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

I realise that I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen, an English son of the border country, with a great love and longing for Wales. Neither have I dwelt on the remarkable Welshman David Jones, a private in the Royal Welch, whose work I shall be returning to very soon: but time, I’m afraid, doesn’t permit.

Let me then end somewhere near I started, at Stradey Park, listening, with my wife-to-be, to the crowd sing ‘Sospan Fach’. ‘Sospan Fach’ is one of Wales greatest folk songs, a shaggy-dog story about a Welsh housewife having a bad day. I once told an Irish friend what the nonsense-lyrics meant, and he was tremendously disappointed. “I thought it was about God or angels, or something of that kind”, he laughed.

Well, the song clearly made an impression on Robert Graves too. He produced his own poem entitled Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan), which obviously re-imagines some of the episodes from ‘Goodbye to All That’ I’ve printed above. With it I’ll end this tribute to Wales and the Welsh in the First World War on St. David’s Day:

Four collier lads from Ebbw Vale
Took shelter from a shower of hail,
And there beneath a spreading tree
Attuned their mouths to harmony.

With smiling joy on every face
Two warbled tenor, two sang bass,
And while the leaves above them hissed with
Rough hail, they started ‘Aberystwyth.’

Old Parry’s hymn, triumphant, rich,
They changed through with even pitch,
Till at the end of their grand noise
I called: ‘Give us the ‘Sospan’ boys!’

Who knows a tune so soft, so strong,
So pitiful as that ‘Saucepan’ song
For exiled hope, despaired desire
Of lost souls for their cottage fire?

Then low at first with gathering sound
Rose their four voices, smooth and round,
Till back went Time: once more I stood
With Fusiliers in Mametz Wood.

Fierce burned the sun, yet cheeks were pale,
For ice hail they had leaden hail;
In that fine forest, green and big,
There stayed unbroken not one twig.

They sang, they swore, they plunged in haste,
Stumbling and shouting through the waste;
The little ‘Saucepan’ flamed on high,
Emblem of hope and ease gone by.

Rough pit-boys from the coaly South,
They sang, even in the cannon’s mouth;
Like Sunday’s chapel, Monday’s inn,
The death-trap sounded with their din.

***

The storm blows over, Sun comes out,
The choir breaks up with jest and shout,
With what relief I watch them part–
Another note would break my heart!

Here’s a popular song sung by British soldiers during the First World War. I love it, though it can seem a little obscure today. It goes a little something like this:

We are Fred Karno’s army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We’ll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.

It takes the tune of an old Christian hymn- ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, sung stodgily here on YouTube- and irreverently switches that song’s worshipful lyrics for amusing self-deprecation. The soldiers who sang this song were celebrating their own inefficient humanity, caught as they were in the European war machine.

The song mentions Fred Karno and ragtime. For years I didn’t know who Fred Karno was. I knew what ragtime was, however: in fact, it was listening to a ragtime song that prompted me to write this post. Stick with me for a few more sentences and you’ll get to hear some ragtime yourself.

Fred Karno was Britain’s most famous talent spotter and impressario in the twenty years before the First World War. “Karno was the star-making Simon Cowell of his day”, Tim Brooke-Taylor says, and he’s right: Karno found comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and made them stars before either went on to Hollywood and became global entertainers. There’s a nice article about Karno on this site dedicated to his birthplace, Exeter.

Karno ruled music hall. Music hall was popular theatre and the chief form of entertainment in Britain from the 1850s until at least the 1920s and 30s. It was the form of entertainment many of the British soldiers in the First World War knew best.

Music hall took its name from the music halls all around the country where the popular entertainment shows played. The music hall show consisted of a variety of performers: singers, comics and speciality acts like magicians, memory men and the like. Karno was famous for his touring troupe of entertainers: a motley crew who were known as ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. This group of balladeers and clowns became proverbial for chaos and disorganisation, hence ‘We are Fred Karno’s Army’. Imagine our soldiers in Afghanistan proclaiming they were ‘Simon Cowell’s Army’ or on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ tour abroad, and you get a sense of the bloody-minded pride and sarcastic mockery of the British Army going on here (and indeed, in other versions of the song the impresario’s name is replaced by Kitchener’s).

So what, then, was the ‘ragtime infantry’?

Well, ragtime was the popular music of the age. Ragtime (along with Blues music) lies at the very beginning of modern pop: ragtime is at the roots of a tree that leads to the Beatles and Motown, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Janelle Monae. Ragtime took European music– jigs and marches played on piano– and mixed them with African American music, with its syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythms. What was produced was a new form of dance music, played mainly on piano, pioneered by black artists like Scott Joplin and his ‘Twelfth Street Rag’.

Scott Joplin, Ragtime star.

Here are some links to Joplin’s music, so you’ve got an idea of the kind of ragtime that was popular with the troops during the war. Some of his songs you may have heard already: like ‘The Entertainer’, perhaps; or another, his ‘Maple Leaf Rag‘. Last of all, I’ve found a clip of the Jazz king, Louis Armstrong, playing ‘Twelfth Street Blues’ many years later, in 1961. When Armstrong plays you really get a sense of the kind of pleasure ragtime gave, played live.

This feeling of fun is sometimes absent, understandably, when we think about the First World War. It can seem sometimes like all this happened to people from a dismal black-and-white world. Yet ragtime, and the happy sarcasm of the soldiers in their uncensored songs allows us a better understanding of the happier lives and better times of the ragtime infantry.