The Home Front


football_battalion_poster

A recruitment poster for the Football Battalion (Wikipedia)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

‘As the Team’s Head Brass’

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

NOTES

As a couple walk together into the wood beyond, a walker rests at the edge of a field. There, a farmer is methodically ploughing his fields with a team of horses, and the narrator and farmer fall into conversation about the war.

As the Team’s Head Brass: the ‘team’ are a pair of horses led by the farmer, pulling a plough. The farmer is preparing his land for the sowing of crops; in some ways, this seems to be a timeless agricultural scene. The “head brass” are the metal bridles around the horses’ heads that allow the horses to be led.

STRUCTURE: This is a narrative poem— it tells a short story. It is written in Iambic Pentameter, and has, I think, a Shakespearian feel to it: everyday events and dialogue are elevated to high poetry by Thomas’ feel for the significance of small things.

“As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn”: time is important in this poem. The poem throws us into events immediately occurring. The flash of the brass in the sunlight as the horses turn at near end of the field punctuates the poem.

“The lovers disappeared into the wood.”: Lovers appear again as key figures in a Thomas poem. We only see them at the beginning and the end of the poem, but they are important symbols of love and life. In ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ the absence of lovers is a terrible loss; in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ their fleeting presence is a cause for optimism and hope.

“I sat… and watched”: the peaceful watching of the narrator as time passes by gives this poem a thoughtful, ponderous tone.

“the fallen elm / That strewed the angle of a fallow”: the narrator sits on a fallen tree that lies on unploughed (“fallow”) land. The narrator views the farmer working the field just as he views the war in this poem; from the side, at an angle to events.

“Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square of charlock”: charlock, or wild mustard, is a weed that must be cleared on arable land for farming. Thomas’ description of the “yellow square” of weed is precise and vivid. This poem utilises pastoral conventions— for example, suggesting at first the peace of the country as opposed to the war beyond— but only does so to subvert those conventions through a realistic depiction of the effects of the war. English agriculture had been in a long, steep decline since the mid-Victorian age. The countryside was a difficult place to live in 1916: this fact, rather than an idealization of the country life, comes through in Thomas’ poem.

“the ploughman leaned… About the weather, next about the war.”: the farmer turns his horses to work back up the field when he reaches the narrator. They exchange pleasantries, and talk about the war.

“Scraping the share… till the brass flashed / Once more.”: the “share” is the ploughshare, or blade that turns over the ground. He turns over the earth as he ploughs his lines along the field, ‘screwing’ “along the furrow”. When the farmer begins to return towards the narrator, the horses’ bridle flashes as it catches the sun. This flashing punctuates the poem, giving a sense of the slowness of rural rhythms.

“The blizzard felled the elm…”: Thomas preserves the iambic pentameter here as he moves forward in his narrative, beginning a new line below. There is a sense of time having passed, but also of continuity. With the blizzard and the fallen tree, Thomas introduces an image of a mishap caused by natural forces.

“‘When will they take it away?’ / ‘When the war’s over.’”: the dialogue between the farmer and narrator introduces the war for the first time. War and good husbandry seem to be contrasted.

“One minute and an interval of ten…”: the rhythm of the encounter is slow, punctuated by work. The repetition emphasises this.

“Have you been out?’…”: an interesting and wryly humorous conversation begins between the two. The narrator’s answer that he would join up “If I could only come back again…” shows the easiness of the two’s conversation. There is no pretence here, no mock-heroism. There is an almost documentary feeling here, and the absurd, self-deprecating humour of the watching narrator belies the seriousness of the following conversation.

“Only two teams work on the farm this year…”: the significance of the single farmer working this large field is made clear by the manpower shortage caused by the war. This practical aspect is made immediately personal by the farmer’s dead friend.

“The second day / In France they killed him”: this swift killing of new recruits was sadly common; new soldiers often made mistakes that exposed them to enemy fire. Sadly, Edward Thomas himself was one of these unlucky recruits, dying very soon after seeing action.

“The very night of the blizzard, too”: as in ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, Thomas is again effective in making the presence of certain things in nature (a fallen tree) represent the absence of human beings (the man who was killed on the same night that it fell). Similarly, the blizzard here becomes linked in its devastating power to the effects of the fighting on the front.

“Now if he had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”: this irony is really at the heart of the poem’s narrative. The tragedy of the farmer’s friend’s death is relayed in an unsentimental, factual way. A sense of the unremitting pressures of the farmer’s life comes through, perhaps, in his resigned attitude.

“And I should not have sat here… it would have been another world”: Thomas cleverly uses this tree to emphasise the tragedy of lost possibilities that the war has brought. There is a philosophical air to this reflection on change and loss. As we have seen in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, this sense that the world has changed for the worse is insisted on through the small details of life that have been affected by the war.

“Ay, and a better, though if we could see all all might seem good’”: a better world has been lost, agrees the farmer; though he proposes optimistically, as a form of consolation, that in the broader view the loss of his friend might be explained for the good. This comforting faith is the last thing said between the farmer and the narrator.

“Then the lovers came out of the wood again:”: the reappearance of the lovers seems to reinforce this sense of hope near the poems end, yet the final three lines work to subtly undermine this.

“…for the last time / I watched the clods crumble and topple over”: the absorption of the narrator in the action of the plough now seems linked to change, and by extension, the war. The crumbling clods of earth and their toppling as they fall from the plough suggest the change in the world wrought by humans; perhaps also suggesting the falling of men to earth in fields abroad.

“…the stumbling team.”: the “stumbling” of the team suggest the difficulty the farmer continues to face, but also of course the loose footing of life itself.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem describes events similar to that Hardy describes in ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ (p.161) but are quite different in tenor. Where Hardy generalises and hardly touches on the actual effects of the war occurring abroad, Thomas is careful to construct a more contemporary encounter that is arguably more powerful because of the understatement of its message.]

‘The Cherry Trees’

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

NOTES

This is another short but profound poem about the fallen cherry blossom on a road, prompting a meditation that links flowers, love and loss.

STRUCTURE: An elegaic stanza– see notes for ‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’.

The Cherry Trees: In this poem Thomas describes the cherry trees shedding their blossom. In England the flowers tend to bloom for three or four weeks after they flower in April, so once again, this a poem set during a late English spring, here in May— the associations of life and home here providing a strong contrast to the war abroad. This poem may be a response to an earlier poet’s short poem about the flowering of cherry trees: A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ (1896). You can read Housman’s fine poem at Bartleby, here. Hausman’s poem is full of humour and promise; Thomas’ dwells on tragedy and loss. Both are suitable to the story of Easter, in which Christ dies, and is born again.

“The Cherry Trees bend over and are shedding…”: The trees, as throughout the poem, are given human qualities; they “bend over” here, like old men or women, or perhaps exhausted soldiers. The ‘shedding’ of cherry blossom occurs just weeks after blooming; if they are a symbol of abundant and beautiful life, they are also a sign that life is fleeting.

“On the old road where all that passed are dead,”: the ‘old road’ again has symbolic weight. As in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’, Thomas is using traditional poetic symbols here for the journey of life; the notion of “passing”, so familiar to us now that it is a euphemistic cliché, derives from this symbolism. Thomas is quite literal, however: the soldiers who marched past on this road are indeed dead.

“Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding”: The blossom appears like confetti on the grass, as if scattered by human hands (“strewing”). This is a striking and powerful simile (“as”), mixing together images of life and love (flowers, a wedding), and death (the blossoms fall because flowering has ended).

“This early May morn where there is none to wed.”: The final line is devastating. The “early May morn” in the quiet English countryside becomes a reminder of the thousands of deaths occurring abroad, leaving “none to wed”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Another poem by Thomas that contemplates the pain of absence and loss. It again features the motif of absent or disappeared lovers, as in ‘In Memoriam’ (p.79) and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (p.179). Ivor Gurney similiarly explores the effect of war on lovers in ‘To His Love’ (p.181) and the same subject is touched on in Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

NOTES

This is a short poem of reflection: the presence of flowers in a wood prompt mourning for a richer and happier world, lost forever because of the war.

Edward Thomas: Edward Thomas was a prolific reviewer and writer before the outbreak of World War One— a man drawn to the beauty of the English countryside, who found in nature and rural life a source of deep inspiration for his work. Thomas lived in Earlsfield with his family after he and his wife defied their parents’ wishes and married. They were thrown into genteel poverty, and Thomas wrote copious literary reviews and books to sustain his family. Thomas wrote some notable books about rural life and the English countryside, only discovering poetry late on in his life, at the urgings of an American poet, Robert Frost (see ‘Range-Finding’). When war broke out Thomas (a middle-aged man of thirty-nine with a young family dependent on him) had doubts about joining up. In 1915 he did enlist, and was soon promoted to the position of officer. Before travelling to France, Thomas wrote all of the poems for which he is now famous; tragically, he was killed almost as soon as he saw action, killed in the Battle of Arras, 1917.

STRUCTURE: A simple poem of iambic pentameters in alternating rhyme, ABAB, known as an elegaic stanza (an elegy is a mournful or melancholic poem, most often written for the dead).  Part of the craft of this poem can be found in the suggestive rhyme. ‘Wood’ is rhymed with ‘should’. ‘Wood’, of course, is a homophone for ‘would’: and the poem is deeply concerned with what would have been— and what should have been. Similarly the rhyme ‘men’ and ‘again’ are linked; a hopeful possibility the poem ultimately closes off for the reader.

In Memorium (Easter 1915): ‘In Memorium’ shows this to be a poem of remembrance. Easter, when the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated, is the most important date in the Christian calendar; a time for reflection on sacrifices made. As Professor Tim Kendall reports on his website, this title was an editor’s later addition, the poem originally going untitled.

“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide…”: A pastoral scene; Thomas felt an intense connection with nature, as did many of the Georgian poets. It is spring; the woodland floor is “thick” with life. “Nightfall” however hints at a shadow cast over the scene this Easter.

“…call into mind the men, / Now far from home…”: the presence of the flowers (and new life) reminds the poet of an absence: that of the soldiers who are abroad.

“…who, with their sweethearts, should have gathered them…”: the poet’s recollection of the soldiers who have gone becomes intensified by the recognition that the loss of men means an end to lover’s walks, or even the possibility of love. What is mourned here is the loss of those who, together, give to this beautiful scene meaning.

“and will do never again.”: A bleak conclusion, with a terrible sense of loss; some relationships are ended forever by the war, and some relationships that might have been, never shall be.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem has a haiku-like simplicity; its draws its power from its brevity and the profound observation that the presence of the beautiful flowers signifies the absence of lovers, and so a loss of profound meaning and happiness in the world. Thomas offers the reader a glimpse of a happier world, to make clearer the true horror of the war.]

"You make us shells."

NOTES

This poem accuses British women of gaining vicarious pleasure from the war, and glorying in the fighting of soldiers abroad.

Glory of Women: ‘Glory’ is a religious word; a divine light that shines from the sacred. Something glorious is something worthy of honour, or praise— here, this poem purports to write about the honour or praiseworthiness of women. In this poem, therefore, the ‘Glory of Women’ is considered ironically.

STRUCTURE: ‘Glory of Women’ is a sonnet. The choice of a sonnet is again ironic— sonnets, of course, being traditionally associated with love. The poem is not necessarily a traditionally structured sonnet, however. The ‘volta’, or ‘turn’ of meaning or focus in the poem occurs before the sextet, as is traditional. There is a turn from detailing what Sassoon takes to be British women’s attitudes towards soldiering and war to a more savage imagery that shows the women to be deluded. There is also, unconventionally, an even more pronounced turn that occurs in the final three lines, as the shocking ending turns from British women to the German mother.

“You love us when we’re heroes…”: from the first, this poem has a confrontational,  accusatory tone, with the direct address of ‘you’ from a notional ‘us’; the voice of a male soldier. The idea of conditional love here— “when we’re heroes”— is the first sign of an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at women.

“Or wounded in a mentionable place”: the suggestion is that female loyalty depends on the wound that a soldier sustains, and that it must not be socially embarrassing for women to relate.

“You worship decorations”: the essential superficiality of the feminine viewpoint is suggested by the idea of worshipping “decorations”— another name for medals.

“you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”: Sassoon suggests that women romanticise the war, focusing on “chivalry” and honour. The war, meanwhile, is described as being precisely dishonorable: it is a “disgrace”.

“You make us shells.”: women, Sassoon suggests, are complicit in the violence, because they are involved in the manufacture of weapons.

“You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.”: the strong rhythm imparted by the alliteration here— “delight”, “dirt”, “danger”— gives a sense of a compelling parlour narrative.

“You crown our distant ardours…And mourn our laurelled memories…”: the most sarcastic lines in the poem, employing commonplace, romantic phrases and suggesting this is the limit of women’s understanding of war. To “crown… distant ardours” means to be the focus of the men’s desires; the “laurelled memories” talked of are the thoughts of the men killed and victorious (thus presented with laurel wreaths) in battle. Note the repetition of ‘our’ here; the opposition of men and women is particularly strongly sustained in these lines.

“You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’”: The beginning of the ‘sextet’ or final six lines of a sonnet. The poem turns from romantic images of men prevalent at home to the true actions of men in war. To ‘retire’, here, is a euphemism for retreat.

“Hell’s last horror… Trampling the terrible corpses— blind with blood”: The alliteration here accentuates the vicious and desperate retreat of the men. The aspirate ‘h’ sounds recall the heavy breath of the running men, the harsher ‘t’ sounds the crushing of bones underfoot, while the plosive ‘b’s almost mimics the projection of blood itself.

“O German mother dreaming by the fire…”: the sudden turn to the presentation of a German mother at home is surprising for the reader, after the focus on the insensitivities and moral complicity of British women in the war. In some ways she is presented more sympathetically than British women: her “dreaming”, because not elaborated on, doesn’t seem as immediately corrupt as that of British women.

“While you are knitting socks… His face is trodden deeper in the mud.”: The final couplet is deliberately shocking. The contrast between the thoughtful domestic scene and the utter savagery of a human head being stood on is horrifying, and meant as a corrective to the illusion that dominates the poem. The brutal truth, Sassoon insists, is a factual corrective to delusion.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that always prompts massive debate in my classes and its misogynistic tone well justifies it. ‘Glory of Women’ needs, however, to be fairly considered with those other poems that Sassoon writes at this time, in which he seeks to angrily identify those who hold some responsibility for the war. Outside of the anthology, ‘Glory of War’ contrasts interestingly with Jessie Pope’s upbeat ‘War Girls’, of course; within the anthology WWI selection, where women’s voices are massively unrepresented, it is interesting to compare this poem with Elizabeth Daryush’s ‘Subalterns’ (p.219) and May Wedderburn Cannan’s ‘Rouen’ (p.220).]

Siegfried Sassoon. 'They' remains in copyright and so cannot be reproduced here.

NOTES

This poem satirically contrasts the moral improvement to British soldiers promised by a Bishop with the physical damage and moral degradation that they actually experience.

STRUCTURE: ‘They’ is comprised of two stanzas of equal length: six lines of iambic pentameter each, with rhyme scheme ABABCC. The second stanza subverts the message of the first. ‘They’ has a clever rhythmical structure, intended to create a particular tone to the poem. Sassoon subtly subverts the Bishop’s strident sermon in the first stanza by his use of colons and semi-colons as caesuras or pauses in the middle of each line. These give the first stanza a deliberately halting rhythm that, along with the rhetorical confidence of the Bishop’s sermon, gives his speech a subtle staginess that suggests an insincere performance. By contrast, the strong rhythm given to the answers of the men in the second stanza reinforces the ugly truth that they tell. The soldiers’ reply tends to pause more ‘naturally’ at the end of lines, ‘end-stopping’ each statement, giving a sense of complete meaning.

Siegfried Sassoon: Siegfried Sassoon is the greatest of the British poets to have survived the war. Born into a wealthy family, Sassoon had a lonely childhood. He took the expected route of his privileged class from public school (Marlborough) and thence up to university (Cambridge), though he quit Cambridge without a degree. At Cambridge, Sassoon fell in love with David Thomas, who later died serving with Sassoon and their friend Robert Graves in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fricourt (Graves would write the poem ‘Goliath and David’ in tribute to Thomas; Sassoon ‘The Last Meeting’ and ‘A Letter Home’). Sassoon took Thomas’ death badly and would go out into no-man’s land nightly, “looking for Germans to kill”. Sassoon, in fact, had a reputation for bravery amongst his men (he was known as ‘Mad Jack’) and won the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon was shot in 1917 and invalided home, there meeting a number of notable pacifists. Sassoon became convinced that he had to make a statement about the conduct of the war, which he described in a letter (later read to parliament) as “now become a war of aggression and conquest”. His friend Graves, fearing that Sassoon would be harshly punished, testified before the army medical board that Sassoon had shell-shock and Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh. It was here that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and fostered his writing ambitions. Sassoon eventually returned to fight on the Western front in 1918, but was again shot in June of that year. He did however survive the war, and published his brilliant autobiographical trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston over the next twenty years. He died in 1967.

They: ‘They’ are the idealised British soldiers of whom the bishop speaks. ‘They’ are quite unlike the real soldiers who go to war.

“The Bishop tells us:”: The figure of religious authority in the poem— a Bishop of the Church of England— speaks with confidence about a situation of which he has no knowledge. He represents a brand of religious cant and hypocrisy that was deeply unpopular amongst many men at the front.

“When the boys come back / They will not be the same;”: The meaning of the poem turns on this observation— that the war changes the men who fought in it. Note the easy familiarity, even patronizing tone of the reference to ‘the boys’, and the use of alliteration in this first line, as throughout the poem.

“for they’ll have fought / In a just cause;”: alliteration (‘f’) is again used to give a rhythmic force to the Bishop’s leading statements. The mention of a “just cause” reinforces the sense that the Bishop is dealing in popular platitudes about the justification for war— that it is “just”, or ‘right’.

“their comrades blood has bought…”: the soldiers are explicitly compared to Christ, who ‘bought’ man eternal life by dying for their sins. Sassoon’s earlier poem ‘The Redeemer’ explicitly made this contrast: interestingly, Sassoon now seems to refute this sentimental analogy.

“New right to breed an honourable race,”: what follows from this Christ-like redemption is more unpleasant however. The Bishop uses pseudo-scientific language, popular around the turn of the century. In Social Darwinist terms, the ‘right to breed’ is claimed through the sacrifice of soldiers. This ‘survival of the fittest’ (here, the fittest are the most “honourable”) is an idea that underlay much elitist thinking about society and often had, as here, a racist dimension. Compare and contrast this line with those found in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’ and ‘The Dead’.

“they have challenged Death and dared him face to face”: the Bishop’s heroic and clichéd rhetoric unwittingly recalls the line in Corinthians 13:12, that declares “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face”. This Biblical line declares that before death we have necessarily imperfect knowledge, only attaining real enlightenment when we meet God. In many ways, the Bishop embodies this cosmic ignorance.

“‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply”: The anguished agreement echoes— along with the use of the phrase “the boys” – the first line, only to subvert the Bishop’s prediction.

“For George lost both his legs…”: A grim litany of injuries follows, spelling out the true consequences of war for “the boys”. Note that the soldiers are named, rather than idealized and anonymous in the Bishop’s sermon. The description is explicit and pitiful: “Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die”.

“‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic:”: Bert has contracted syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Soldiers on leave would commonly visit prostitutes in the local towns and villages; brothels were even graded in some areas for use by officers (signed by blue lamps) and privates (red lamps). Venereal infection was endemic, as prostitutes could sleep with over a hundred men a day. Note the deeply ironic contrast, then, between this and the Bishop’s claim that “their comrades blood has bought / New right to breed an honourable race”.

“…that hasn’t found some change.”: the irony of this statement illustrates Sassoon’s satirical point, that a massive change has indeed come to the men, but quite different to that which the Bishop predicts.

“And the Bishop said; ‘the ways of God are strange!”: The Bishop resorts to idiotic cliché to explain the real change witnessed, essentially pronouncing that ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is in some ways representative of the selections that Stallworthy makes from Sassoon’s poetry in the OBOWP. Stallworthy describes Sassoon’s later war poems as “launched at the reader like a hand grenade” (p.68), and this, written in 1916, fits the same billing. It is a cutting attack on the hypocrisy of authority and the kind of rhetoric used to encourage others to go abroad and fight. As such it stands special comparison with Sassoon’s own attack on the military leadership, ‘The General’ (p.177), but also G.K. Chesterton’s acerbic attack on the political class, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (p.212).]

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