When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead – Charles Sorley

‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

NOTES

This difficult poem describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed in the First World War, attempting to instruct the reader that they should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation between the two.

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Again, this title has been applied after the fact. This has become a famous poetic image and quotation related to the First World War: it encompasses the scale of human loss in a nightmare vision of powerlessless (‘mouthless’, of course, suggests their inability to speak— or have their voices heard by others).

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet. To see previous notes which describe the sonnet’s traditional structure, see Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’. Sorley’s sonnet has an unusual structure:  ABABBABA CDCDCD. It retains a distinct octet and sextet, but as a sonnet it is nonetheless unconventional, not least in its uncompromising subject matter.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead… pale battalions go”: The opening lines are immediately both shocking and haunting. The second person address (the use of ‘you’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘I’) immediately personalizes the nightmare vision of the millions dead. It is an interesting question as to whom the implied reader is in this poem: is it those at home who have not witnessed the horrors of the war? Or is the march of the dead soldiers across the dreamworld of the living a universal experience, something unavoidable? Greek myth, which Sorley knew well, sometimes made the gods of sleep (Hypnos), death (Thanatos) and dreams (Morpheus) brothers; in this sense, encountering those who have died in battle in dreams is not necessarily an unexpected meeting.

“Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember.”: the speaker warns against polite consoling or pitying words to the dead. The warning seems to address feelings of shame or embarrassment that the implied reader might feel: introducing the submerged question of guilt about the deaths of the men.

“For you need not so. / Give them not praise.”: these short sentences of instruction are written in a peculiarly disjointed way. The souls of soldiers might be expected to draw from the living kind words or praise. Yet the words ‘not’ (and later ‘nor’) interrupt and negate such responses: they’re simply not an option. This sense of interruption of expectations and meaning within the style of writing is known as anastrophe– where the grammar of a sentence seems deliberately disjointed or strangely ordered for effect. Compare the greeting to the dead in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’— where the speaker begins, “Strange friend” (p.194).

“For, deaf, how should they know it is not curses… gashed head?”: The horrific insensibility of the dead is compounded with the observation that they cannot hear what you have to say to them. The reference to ‘gashed heads’ here is deliberately disturbing: the soldier’s wounds persist after death.

“Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.”: with each line the insensibility of the dead to the living increases. “Tears”— pity— have no use here.

“Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”: the repeated rejection of what might be thought as humane or proper responses to the dead soldiers in each instruction emphasises the distance and difference between the dead and the living. The idea that it is ‘easy to be dead’ is shocking, even if it does appeal to intuition (that it is harder to stay alive than stay dead).

“…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”: there is, again, something shocking about the matter-of-factness of these instructions. The instruction to add that better people have died than the dead in war is so unsentimental as to seem chilling. It is interesting to speculate why Sorley uses this objective tone when writing about this encounter with the dead. Why is he alienated by the solecisms (kind words and acts) of the living? Is it because they are useless once a man is dead? Does Sorley blame the naively sentimental, the kind and the patriotic for the war?

“scanning all the o’ercrowded mass,”: “scanning” means looking; “o’ercrowded” means overcrowded. There are, remember, millions of dead soldiers crowding this dream space. “Mass” suggests they have lost individuality: it is an interesting word in early twentieth century discourse. ‘The masses’ were people perceived as a scary and undifferentiated entity, rather than as a large group made up of individuals. It may have a sinister suggestion here.

“…should you / Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, / It is a spook.”: the lines mean ‘if you see someone you loved before, it is a ghost’. The contrast between the hopeful expectation of the bereaved viewer and the unsentimental speaker is again contrasted. The choice of the word ‘spook’ is interesting: it is careless, flippant, almost dismissive, having few of the high-flown religious connotations we might expect when talking about such a moment.

“None wears the face that you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.”: a chilling tone continues to the end. The common personification of Death, as a ruler or king over all, that we have already found in Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ (p.164) makes a reappearance here. Note that, like Grenfell’s poem and the previous by Sorley, this is an unchristian poem. There is no consolation of heaven for the righteous dead, similarly no promise of hell; kind or thoughtful acts affect nothing, and are quite useless— they seem almost to be vanities; while the ‘mass’ of dead are regarded objectively, almost without discrimination. The inspiration for this vision is, similar to Grenfell, the classical idea of death and afterlife found in Greek myth. Hades ruled over the Greek underworld or afterlife; those who led unremarkable lives would wander the fields of Asphodel in Hades, having forgotten their previous identities, leading neutral, ghostly lives. Heroes of battle would live in the Elysian fields; but the afterlife of the ‘mass’ of dead that Sorley describes here fits far closer the fields of Asphodel. The lack of a sense of pity or consolation in the poem marries up with this bleak world of identity lost and disconnection from the world of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is part of a long tradition of poems that describe the encounter between the living and the ghosts of the dead who have been killed in battle. It can usefully be compared within the anthology to Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (p.194) and, outside the anthology, with Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’.]

The Christmas Truce of 1914

I’d wager that if you asked the average person to name one important event during the First World War, many people wouldn’t plump for a military action. It’d be an interesting experiment to find out how many people in Britain today know the name of any major battle, beside the Somme. There’d be takers for Verdun, perhaps, Passchendaele and probably Ypres (although just like many of the men who were stationed there, hardly anyone, including me, would quite know how to pronounce Ypres– the British soldiers stationed there called it ‘Wipers’).

German and British soldiers meeting in no-man's land, Christmas 1914.

No, the event that has lived longest in the popular memory– that has provided fodder for songs and pop videos, and has become a myth all of its own– is the Christmas truce of 1914.

On Christmas day, 1914, despite orders to the contrary made by British commanders, an informal ceasefire took place between German and British soldiers on the Western Front. For just over a day soldiers on either side in Flanders held off attempting to kill each other: a peaceable act that has become a kind of popular shorthand for the good faith the common man has for his fellows, even in the worst of circumstances.

What are the facts? You’ll find them nicely laid out at The Long, Long Trail website. Only five months into the war, neither trench lines nor mental lines were drawn as absolutely between the combatants as they would become later. Fraternisation with the enemy, especially at Christmas, was recognised as a risk to discipline: General Smith-Dorren ruled early in December that “unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited”.

Yet as Christmas neared, local truces occurred. These meant that wounded men could be retrieved from no-man’s land, and that the dead could be buried.

In addition, the close proximity of the two sides to one another meant that one side could hear the other singing carols– even see the other erect Christmas trees above the trenches. Christmas, and the feelings stirred by the season, seemed to encourage the “‘live and let live’ theory of life” that Smith-Dorren feared would destroy “the offensive spirit in all ranks”.

On Christmas Eve, the miserable wet weather of the season relented a little, with a hard frost that made life easier for all on the front. Fighting continued, but meetings were held between the sides to collect and bury bodies. This fraternisation continued into Christmas day, tolerated but not approved of by the British army authorities: it is the Germans who generally initiate contact. Some men share cigarettes and cigars; elsewhere beer and plum pudding; letters are passed on; often the erstwhile combatants simply talk. You can read some of the fascinating first-hand accounts at the well-sourced Hellfire Corner. There’s something genuinely humbling about the tales the soldiers tell: and a wonderful sense of perplexity and delight amongst those taking part that such a thing could occur.

'An Historic Group: British and German soldiers photographed together': from the front page of The Daily Mirror.

If you want to read in more detail about the Christmas truces, I heartily recommend Operation Plum Pudding’s excellent site, The Christmas Truce 1914. Here, volunteers have collected many of the personal stories printed in the columns and letter pages of newspapers about Christmas 1914.

Those of you English A-level students who are more ‘visual learners’ (read: ‘lazy’) you can check out some good snippets from documentaries on YouTube: a tale from Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium and a first-hand account from a British soldier. There’s also a dramatisation from the great 60s anti-war satire, ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’. This takes from some of the sources above, but channels them into a humanistic critique of the conduct of the First World War. It’s well worth watching: though remember that what you’re watching isn’t real, it’s an interpretation of the known events with a modern message– that war is wrong. Bear in mind that, as much as you may agree with that point of view, the actual people involved in the truces were caught in a far more complicated net of feelings about war and peace.

‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ takes the Christmas Truce of 1914 and understands it as a triumph of human fellowship in the face of modern warfare and modern politics. Yet, if we wanted to, we could complain about this point of view, too, and call it sentimental nostalgia: after all, it was Christian values that allowed these men to talk together in no-man’s land, but Christian values were in little evidence in the build-up to war. Or we might observe that the Christmas truces were the last flowering of a more honourable age of warfare, dying more or less on Christmas day 1914. Or we could complain about the way the Christmas truces have been separated from context and become a bland, popular fairy tale: watch Paul McCartney’s video to Pipes of Peace (1983), for example. We can gripe about much of the myth when compared to the fact.

Ultimately, however, the Christmas Truce as a myth and in fact speaks to us today as saying something basically optimistic about human beings. Without the rules and necessities that propel us towards evil the truces seem to suggest that human beings are basically good. That sentiment is encouraging: as is the knowledge that, in truth, many men really did stop killing one another during Christmas 1914, and treated each other like decent human beings. Something to celebrate.

All the Hills and Vales Along – Charles Sorley

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath,
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour your gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.
All the music of their going,
Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

NOTES

This poem describes a group of soldiers who are marching off to battle, singing as they do so. They are watched— or perhaps more appropriately for this poem, heard— by the speaker as they move away.

STRUCTURE: ‘All the hills and vales along’ has a complex and intricately developed structure. Written in rhyming couplets, it comprises four stanzas each of which adds two lines to the first so that there are progressively eight lines, ten, twelve and finally fourteen. This, along with the repetition which is a feature of the poem, brings a cumulative effect whereby the ending has power and ‘weight’. The lengthening of the verse also mimics an interminable march where each set distance travelled seems longer and longer. Nonetheless, the poem is written in a jaunty, ‘tripping’, trochaic rhythm; a rhythm which contrasts ironically with the grim journey of the soldiers.

Charles Sorley: Charles Sorley was a talented and athletic student who gained a scholarship to study at one of Britain’s top public schools, Marlborough College. In 1913, at the age of 18, he moved to Germany for a year to study at the University of Jena before going up to Oxford University. War broke out in 1914, however, and Sorley was briefly interned by the German government before he was allowed to sail home to England. He promptly joined up and was made a captain in the Suffolk regiment. He arrived in France in May 1915— but was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in October 1915, at only twenty years of age.

All the Hills and Vales along: Sorley did not title his poems; they were found rough-written in his backpack after he died at Loos. Poetic convention is to take the first line as title.

“All the hills and vales along / Earth is bursting into song”: The trochaic rhythm is evident: “ALL the HILLS and VALES aLONG / EARTH is BURSTing INto SONG”. This provides a tripping, upbeat rhythm that seems appropriate to the seemingly happy, pastoral description of the opening lines (compare Blake’s opening lines to Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Piping down the valleys wild / piping gentle songs of glee…”). The living “Earth” is a motif throughout the poem; there is an almost paganistic symbolism to this fertile imagery. The “bursting” of these opening lines speaks of spring, but also foreshadows the shells of the front that may kill the marching men.

“And the singers are the chaps / Who are going to die perhaps.”: the tone of the first two lines is immediately undercut by the fierce irony of these following. The colloquial tone of the third line seems to suggest a kind of Georgian jollity— but the almost offhand conclusion, that the soldiers may be about to die, makes us bleakly reconsider the seemingly romantic scene Sorely has described.

“O sing, marching men”: the form of Sorley’s poem, with verse and chorus, reflects and replies to the soldier’s marching song in a darker, more self-conscious tone.

“Give your gladness to earth’s keeping / So be glad when you are sleeping”: The listener seems to enjoy the men’s song, a moment of happiness in the short time of optimism and expectation given to them.

“Cast away regret and rue / Think what you are marching to.”: The beginning of the second stanza seems to exult in or at least enjoy the men’s happy fearlessness, as they march to war and possible heroism. Note the alliteration (r) that orders the beginning of the stanza.

Little live, great pass. / Jesus Christ and Barabbas / Were found the same day.”: The reference is to the story of Christ and Barabbas. Arrested as Sorley speculates here on “the same day”, the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate condemned both men to die as Jewish rebels. He gave the Jews of Jerusalem the chance, however, to release one from crucifixion: they chose to free Barabbas. Hence the “little” man lived, but the “great” man passed: “This died, that went his way”. Using this Christian imagery, Sorley seems to be suggesting that the greater man will lay down his life for his friends and country. It was a common metaphor to compare the sacrifice of soldiers to the sacrifice of Christ.

“So sing… you are going to death”: it is reiterated that death can be welcome— but this is nonetheless unsettling.

Teeming earth will gladly store / All the gladness you can pour”: The earth ‘teems’— it is ‘full of life’. There seems to be a metaphorical equation here between life and gladness: understood abstractly, the lines seem to suggest a kind and infinitely comforting earth. If we literalise the metaphor, however— which means to make those abstract terms more realistic— the life that pours into the earth is blood: the blood of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. This couplet is typical of the poem as a whole: superficially simple, even epigrammatic, but in fact deliberately ambiguous and ironic. 

Earth that…”: This phrase begins each line and is repeated rhetorically, in a technique known as anaphora. Anaphoraic rhetoric builds intensity with the accumulation of the same insistent phrase. Earth here becomes personified as a curiously unfeeling and amoral creature.

…bore with joyful ease / Hemlock for Socrates…”: a classical allusion after the religious. Socrates (469-399 BC) is one of the most important Greek philosophers. He was forced by the state of Athens to take poison (the plant, hemlock) because his ideas supposedly corrupted the city’s youth, and were thus dangerous to the status quo. In this image, then, Earth seems to be boasting of producing the poison that killed one of Western culture’s great thinkers and original radicals.

Earth that blossomed and was glad / ‘Neath the cross that Christ had,”: Earth again appears pitiless in this image. ‘Gladness’ might again here equate to blood— the blood that fell from Christ’s side after he was pierced by the centurion’s spear. The imagery of spring and blossoming recalls the Easter story, of Christ’s sacrifice for man on the cross.

Earth… shall rejoice and blossom too / When the bullet reaches you”: an unconsoling thought, given the examples given prior.

Wherefore, men marching… sing!”: there is a note of defiance in this exhortation. Note the continued alliteration, the rhythm of which is suitable for “men marching”.

So be merry, so be dead.”: the pithy rhetorical tone continues with the use of anaphora; while this line also uses another common rhetorical / poetic device, antithesis, that is the opposition or contrast of ideas in parallel or balance within a sentence. This becomes a refrain that will end the poem.

From the hills and valleys earth  / Shouts back the sounds of mirth,”: the countryside echoes to the sound of the soldier’s happiness. Another classical reference may be contained here: the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the water-nymph forever condemned to only repeat the last words of her lover. The Earth here seems to reply to the soldiers who will soon be lying down with it, pouring gladness “on earth’s head”, a consummation that results in a bloody baptism or rebirth. Tragedy qualifies this happy image, especially as we are already aware of the ambiguous, ‘other’ nature of Earth’s relationship with men.

All the music of their going”: another ironic statement: ‘their going’ speaks of the beginning of the soldier’s march, but also of their coming deaths.

Earth will echo still, when foot / Lies numb and voice mute.”: the end of the last ‘verse’ in this stanza ends with silence (mute) and ultimate death— the singing is done.

…on / to the gates of death with song”: the destination is stated clearly now. There is a classical clarity to the warrior’s journey at the end of the poem, but there remains a disturbing taint to the juxtaposition of death and life.

Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping”: harvest imagery that promises a new spring. The poem’s vision of sacrifice is disturbing because it refuses a kind of moral transcendence; the men will die, and a new world will come of this, but only the fecund and ultimately silent earth is the recipient of their gift.

Strew your gladness on earth’s bed, / So be merry, so be dead.” A final image of pagan fertility, where the ‘gladness’ that was blood now becomes definitively seminal. The final refrain captures the deeper antithesis running throughout the poem: that the living can celebrate death, and death inspire the living. Such a perspective is necessarily ironic.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Sorley’s poem is neatly placed in the Anthology. Positioned just after poems which depict the feelings of exultation that accompanied the outbreak of war, it both reflects this celebratory tone and subtly subverts it. In many ways it is a similar poem to Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’, in that it presents the happiness of soldiers as they march off to fight: but like that poem the poet seems to take a more objective position than the earnestness shown by the soldiers. ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ is a deliberately ambiguous and ironic poem in contrast to, say, Brooke’s sonnets, which are more romantic and straightforwardly patriotic. Sorley seems to take in the perspectives of both the early, enthused participants in the war, and the later, warier critique of poets like Owen and Sassoon. This poem also bears comparison to other WWI poems that describe singing or marching men: such as ‘The Men Who March Away’, Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’, and Ivor Gurney’s ‘Strange Hells’. It also bears interesting comparison to poems that dwell on Nature and man’s relationship to nature, especially WWI poems that depict nature as pitiless or inhumanly other in some way. Sandburg’s ‘Grass’ (p.168), Steven’s ‘Death of a Soldier’ (p.169) and Owen’s ‘Futility’ (p.193) have some of this objective and alienated vision of Nature. Instead of finding comfort or pastoral beauty in nature, these poems suspect that man has been born into a world hostile to man and morality. These poems take the perspectives of paganism and inspect them in the light of modernity, and find consolation about the horrors of war hard to find as a consequence.]

The Game of War

Long ago, when the mighty Brontosaurus still roamed the earth, I went to an infants school in a small satellite town in south west London. There, at lunchtimes, we used to play a game of war. This thrilling game began with two kids linking arms and skipping through the playground, chanting, ‘Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game’- and so on, and so on.  Kids would link arms with a boy (more rarely a girl) on either end, until finally a long, tenticular line waved its way across the playground. And that was it. Nobody actually ever played war. The tenticular arm would swing around until everyone got bored and went off to play football. We weren’t a very bellicose bunch, to be honest. So much for the imaginations of children.

Why am I mentioning this? Well, a better planned Game of War is in the news this week. It’s not the same game, of course. This war game dates back to 1890, when British school playgrounds really were school playgrounds, and a game of war probably meant boys setting up a maxim gun near the girl’s toilets.

‘The Game of War’ was a military strategy game, based on an original German model known as ‘Kriegspiel’. It was invented as a form of training for late Victorian army officers, and a version of it from around 1890 was on sale at Bonhams Auction House on Monday. As you can see, it’s quite a box, containing incredibly detailed maps and slate playing pieces for either army– and costing between £1500 and £2000 it’s a touch more expensive than a box of Monopoly. Using it, British officers perfected their military strategems and tactics in advance of war.

The Game of War, c. 1890

Or so they thought. In the event of war, the game was rather less useful than intended. As is well known, the First World War– on the Western Front, at least–  was for the greatest part of four years a long seige of trenches, utilising machine gun emplacements, gas attacks, tanks and massive artillery shelling on a scale never before seen. The much-expected “war of movement”– that is, the rapid offensive or defensive movement across territory by cavalry or infantry, as at the Battle of Gheluvelt— was only seen at the very beginning and end of war. The Game of War only had six machine gun units for its entire gameplay. The officers who played the game were preparing for a war that would never take place.

At the end of the ninteenth century, military planners were looking backwards. They saw the comprehensive Prussian victory against France in 1870, where German troops finally occupied Paris, and imagined that the future promised the same. This retrospective attitude to war is reflected in some of the poetry at the beginning of the First World War: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith, for example, imagines a City clerk fantasizing about the picture book victories of Roman legionaries and medieval knights. Bored, he daydreams:

Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament:
Yet ever ’twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

Asquith’s clerk, of course, decides to volunteer and is killed– lying “content”, as the poet proclaims, “with that last high hour, in which he lived and died”. Asquith wants the lesson to be that no matter how contemptible your job– and there is a patronising stink to his picture of the suburban commuter class– you too can live the glittering dream of knightly chivalry and imperial conquest. The remarkable complacency of the kind of culture that produced Herbert Asquith– and it’s too, too relaxed attitude to death– finds a mirror in the strategic unreadiness of the armies of the First World War. It is unfair to use 20/20 hindsight to criticise those who could not see what the future was to bring, but it is hard not to judge harshly the backwards-looking, even nostalgic perspective of certain members of the officer class before the First World War.

Was anyone looking ahead, anticipating the dread forms that modern technological warfare would bring? Well, in literature, certainly. Way back in 1879 Jules Verne wrote a today neglected (because pretty dire) novel called The Begum’s Fortune in which the inhabitants of a German city, Stahlstadt, build a new weapon to fire at a Utopian French City, Frankville. It is a form of artillery shell containing carbon dioxide that, when fired in a spread, will suffocate and freeze all beneath the barrage. Verne had been paying attention to the successful use of German artillery during the Franco-Prussian war; but his anticipation of the use of gas in the Great War was cannily accurate.

The second writer to grasp the shape of things to come was Verne’s contemporary and close competitor for the title, ‘Father of Science Fiction’: H.G. Wells. Wells, in a visionary 1903 short story called The Land Ironclads, imagined an armoured vehicle that would later come to be called the tank. His great imaginative leap was to wonder if heavily plated battleships (‘Ironclads’) could be imagined fighting, somehow, on land: only the battle of Cambrai in 1917 would bring his fantasy into reality.

HG Wells playing ‘Little Wars’.

And it is Wells, with his playful and aggressive imagination, that brings us back to the Game of War. For it was Wells who was the first man to bring the world of Kriegspiel into the living room, with his 1913 game book, ‘Little Wars’. Wells famously loved games– visits to his house in Sandgate inevitably meant playing them, whether the visitors were adults or children. There’s a line to be drawn from Kriegspiel to the Game of War to ‘Little Wars’, all the way to today’s computer games, like ‘Call of Duty’. War games are some of the oldest games there are: and I suppose, on some deep level, there might be something frightening about having them in our living rooms. Yet war games are about playing imaginatively with the highest stakes possible, but without the terrible consequences that actual war brings. It is The Game of War as an officer training tool, however, that shows the tricky middle ground between imaginative play and war: where a lack of imagination has profound consequences in not little, but Great Wars.

Julian Grenfell resources: Biography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julian Grenfell.

 

“I adore war. It’s like a big picnic, without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy.”

“The fighting excitement revitalises everything- every sight and word and action. One loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him.”

These are the thoughts of Julian Henry Francis Grenfell, son of the first Baron Desborough, and the man who penned Into Battle. It’s worth re-reading those lines once again– to check, if nothing else, that you read them correctly. Go on, look back over them. I’ll wait down here for you.

That’s right. Julian Grenfell loved war. He enjoyed hunting human beings. It was, for him, like spending a happy day in the park. Fighting made life more vivid for Julian Grenfell.

I’ve spent years teaching Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’– one of the most popular poems of the First World War– and it’s a poem that students at Southfields tend to like. I generally can’t conceal my pleasure when reading it, and perhaps that helps, but it’s a poem that always provokes discussion. Grenfell’s enthusiasm for war does not find a lot of sympathy amongst students today. He is called a number of names, ‘mad’ and ‘stupid’ among them. A recurring word that has popped up over the years to describe him has also been psychopath. His love of war has been discussed as being symptomatic of a diseased brain. And, indeed, why not?

Well, it’s not particularly useful to label writers. To explain away individual attitudes or artistic choices in terms of medical issues nearly always misrepresents the writer, and diminishes their work. Great artists are often weirdos: that’s why they see the world differently to the rest of us. Wiliam Blake may have had schizophrenia, Dostoevsky epilepsy and Van Gogh may have been bipolar. Ultimately their individual illnesses don’t matter that much, however: their works of art are more important than they are, frankly.  We know next to nothing about Shakespeare, but his plays survive to inform us and give us pleasure. It doesn’t really matter what his sexual orientation or attitude to bear-baiting was. The plays (and the poems) are the thing.

By the same token, we’d want to look a little deeper into the life of Grenfell and the society in which he grew up before deciding that he was a psychopath. His attitude to killing other men seems, on a moral level, just as deviant to me as to the students I have taught—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was crazy, after all.

In this posting and the one following, we’re going to look at different ways of understanding Grenfell’s attitude to war. It will hopefully help you explore new ways of reading at A-level. If you’re studying, as we are at Southfields, the AQA Specification A AS level, we will be looking specifically at aspects of Assessment Objective 4 (AO4)— historical context. AO4 has proportionately less weighting when grading papers at AS level than the other AOs, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it when we write about literature.

As a student of English understanding the historical background of a text is important. In terms of AS, if you’re incapable of showing your understanding of historical context, you’ll almost certainly falter when graded according to the other Assessment Objectives. For example: how can you meaningfully compare Journey’s End (1928), say, with Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), without referring to the fact that seven decades lie between their composition? Making linkages between texts is graded according to AO3, but it would be hard to score highly in this area if you didn’t know how attitudes had changed from the 1960s onward, leading to popular scepticism about the conduct of the war. Knowledge of historical context about the production of literature is crucial, even if we want to discount the importance of that history.

In this posting, however, we’re asking a simpler question: who was Julian Grenfell?

Ettie Grenfell and her two sons, Julian and Billy. Both were killed in the First World War.

You can find a pithy biography on the Grenfell family’s website. Julian Grenfell was born in 1888 to a wealthy upper class family in Oxford. He was the son of William Grenfell, a celebrated athlete and ennobled ex-MP father; his mother, Ettie, was an intelligent and promiscuous socialite. Born into this world of high privilege, Grenfell was sent to Eton and later Oxford University. A charming but aggressive young man, he was both popular and a bully; he would attack aesthetes (fashionable dandies of the time dedicated to beauty and art) with his horse whip.

A contemporary said of him,

He rowed, he hunted; and he read, and he roared with laughter, and he cracked his whip in the quad all night; he bought greyhounds, boxed all the local champions; [wrote] poetry… and charmed everybody.

Except aesthetes, of course. He dabbled in poetry (read his ode to his greyhound, here) and wrote a number of essays that John Stallworthy judges were “an attack on the values of English society in general, and his mother’s social circle in particular”. Grenfell’s background may have been privileged, but his relationship with his mother in particular produced a sense of instability which some of Grenfell’s biographers have seen as recklessly propelling him towards war. Grenfell was something of an angry young man, then, and a frustrated rebel: though at least until the Great War, a rebel without a cause.

Depressed by the lack of interest in his writing, he joined the Royal Dragoons in 1910, and was sent to India: and when the First World War began he was posted immediately to Flanders, and fought in the First Battle of Ypres (it is possible to read online a 1917 eulogy to Julian Grenfell by Viola Meynell that, while unreliable, gives a decent flavour of his experience of the war). He was honoured for his bravery stalking snipers during that battle, and was offered a staff position away from the front lines, which he refused. In May 1915, however, he was hit in the head by shell fragments and died in a hospital in Boulogne. ‘Into Battle’ was published in The Times the very next day. It quickly became one of the most acclaimed poems of the war, and the legend of another soldier-poet was born.

To be fair, then, little in Grenfell’s biography suggests a psychopath. It seems Grenfell was forthright and charming, rude and arrogant; a sensitive young man whose manly mask hid a troubled personality. Not that unusual, really.

In the next posting, we will engage less with the man, and more with the matter of history, and the society that made Julian Grenfell.

[Note: for an excellent potted biography of Grenfell and 11 other First World War poets, Jon Stallworthy’s beautifully illustrated hardback Anthem For Doomed Youth is of unparalleled use for AS level students. The above quotes are from the short essay on Grenfell in this work.]

In Flanders Fields – John McCrae

‘In Flanders Fields’

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

NOTES

This is a poem of remembrance, a call for those living not to forget the dead who are buried in a foreign land. It demands that the living remember why the fallen died, so that they did not die in vain. This is one of the most famous poems of the First World War.

STRUCTURE: This poem uses a specifically French form, dating back to the 13th Century, known as a rondeau. A rondeau traditionally has 13 lines of 8 syllables length; it has three stanzas, with rhyme scheme AABBA AABC AABBAC; and it features a four syllable refrain (marked C in the notation previous) that repeats the opening words of the poem. Check these against McCrae’s poem: you’ll find he follows the form quite perfectly. As writing a sonnet, composing a rondeau is demanding exercise for a poet.

John McCrae: A Canadian doctor who treated soldiers on the Western Front. He threw away the poem after first writing it, only fishing it out of his bin the next day.

In Flanders Fields: features the alliteration that helps structure this poem throughout.

“…the poppies grow”: poppies were a symbol for death in war before World War One, but it was McCrae’s poem that helped to popularize the poppy as a sign of remembrance for the Great War. Poppies have been associated with the battlefield since at least the Napoleonic wars, when poppies would thrive and grow on the fields freshly manured by blood. Poppies were also associated with sleep (opium being a poppy derivate) and McCrae, being a doctor, would have been conscious of this: the idea of sleeping under the poppies is revived in the last lines.

“We are the dead.”: the poem turns, surprisingly, to the dead, who are given voice by the poet. This is a powerful and emotive turn, a direct address of the living by the fallen.

“In the sky, the larks”: these birds, traditional poetic symbols of natural beauty and freedom, contrast strongly with the world below. As often, nature provides an idealized backdrop to the war that provides a contrast with man’s immoral actions.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe”: the message of the poem is to continue the war.

“we throw the torch… hold it high”: emotive image of passing on a burning torch to light the way forward. It must be held high— as a precious object of pride.

“if ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep…”: the suggestion is of a curse on those who do not remember the dead; an old and powerful idea.

Though poppies grow…” reminds us the somnolent (sleep-inducing) power of the poppy.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of the poems in the anthology to give the war dead a voice that directly addresses the reader: the first of the powerfully emotive poems that try to express the ‘pity’ of the soldier’s situation.]

Into Battle – Julian Grenfell

‘Into Battle’

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship-
The Dog-star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they-
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing.’

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind-

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

NOTES

This poem has a strong pastoral feel, as in so many of the poems of the First World War (remember, the poetry written immediately before the war was very concerned with the countryside and rural life). In this way, it follows some of the traditional and conservative forms of Edwardian poetry. This form of pastoral has been adapted, though, so that nature becomes a source of inspiration for the soldier. Grenfell’s soldier in this poem follows the classical ideal of the soldier, who looks to gain glory through battle.

STRUCTURE: Simple, classic rhyme scheme: 4 line verse (quatrain) of 8 syllables each, rhyming ABAB (a form known as ‘cross-rhyme’).

Julian Grenfell: Julian Grenfell was an aggressive character who gloried in going to war. He once famously wrote in a letter home, “I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy”. This poem is written in praise of battle and the soldier.

‘Into Battle’: The poem describes the inspiration that a soldier can take from nature in the quiet contemplative moments before battle. It was first published in The Times the day after Grenfell’s death, on 27th May 1915.

“The naked earth is warm with spring…”: sets the pastoral scene of the poem.

“…who dies fighting has increase”: perverse declaration that war is life: those who die in battle have lived life to its fullest.

“The fighting man shall from the sun / Take warmth…”: this is a key stanza in the poem. It is a sextet and focuses on the ‘fighting man’ and his qualities, taken from nature.

‘Speed with the light-foot winds to run”: the soldier appears to be an idealized warrior-god. Physical exertion is also seen as liberating- all part of Grenfell’s classical, ‘muscular’ and masculine aesthetic.

“All the bright company of Heaven / Hold him in their high comradeship”: The noble and high nature of soldiery. The stars named after are associated with the hunt: Sirius (the Dog-Star) is Orion’s (the hunter’s) hunting hound.

Stanzas 5, 6, 7, 8: the landscape / trees and animals are the soldier’s inspiration and friends. He has their best qualities, follows their laws. The key line is “the horses show him nobler powers”– nature teaches the man in war, and he in turn becomes one with nature (horses are traditional symbols of wisdom; hence Blake’s ‘horses of instruction’ and Swift’s Houyhmhnms).

“And when the burning moment breaks…”: these next two stanzas are where the poem reaches an almost orgasmic climax, a pleasure in impulse and power during battle. “Joy of battle” is expresses a Classical kind of pleasure in war. This is a very masculine, aggressive idea of war and soldiering. The great soldier is a little like the ‘man-killer’ Achilles in spirit, impervious to the weapons of the other side: “Nor lead nor steel shall touch him”. The great warrior puts himself in the hands of fate, “the Destined Will”.

“…in the air Death moans and sings…”: incredible image where Death becomes the god of this world, the mind that rules over it. Grenfell almost seems to exult in this: perhaps only death brings true glory?

“But Day shall clasp him… Night…”: the poem ends on a note of reassuring restfulness, the ecstacy of battle done.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: At this point, the anthology moves from poems by those with a lack of knowledge of the front line (Brooke saw action, but never fought) to a more direct knowledge of what battle is like. Note that Grenfell still indulges in some of the Classical idealizations of the warrior that Brooke, Asquith and others also dealt in.]

The London Victoria Memorial 2010

A-level meetings! Excitement and intellectual thrills. Further to my post on the 10th about the journey of the Unknown Warrior to his tomb in Westminster Abbey, it so happened that I wandered through London Victoria train station last week.

There, next to Platform 8, I found the plaque erected by the Western Front Association, commemorating the arrival of the Unknown Soldier’s carriage. Further along the railings, poppy wreaths had been lain by a number of different associations- from Tube and Train Drivers Unions, various army regiments, the British Legion, and even a Jewish servicemen’s organisation.

It was interesting to see the buffers that met the end of that famous journey. The Western Front Association has an interesting site with articles about the recent remembrance ceremonies, the Battle of Loos, Churchill, instructions in how deal with gas attacks, amongst others. It also has an article on the Victoria ceremony this year, here.

Armistice Day at Southfields Community College

They say that there is a First World War memorial in just about every city, town and village in Great Britain. Within those cities, towns and villages, there will often be more than one place set aside for reflection on the sacrifice of the dead. There are memorials that go unseen by casual eyes: in churches and cathedrals to dead parishoners, in town halls, post offices, schools. Here at Southfields we have our own First World War memorial, and it’s one of the more beautiful modern memorials that you’re likely to see.

A few years ago some of our younger art students were encouraged to make tiles depicting scenes and symbols of the First World War. They made brightly coloured tiles of poppies, soldiers, trenches, airplanes and pressings of barbed wire and iron. They coloured these and gave them a beautiful glossy glaze. Finally, they constructed a tableau out of the different elements, arranged around the words, ‘We Remember’. My picture really doesn’t do the bright simplicity of the arrangement justice: you can see it in the college’s reception hallway. It’s a favourite part of the school buildings.

The Southfields War Memorial, made by our own pupils.

Today the school stopped for its minute’s silence which, as usual, was observed impeccably. History classes lead up to Armistice day and our pupils are well informed about the reasons for observing the silence and respecting the dead. Remembrance Day at Southfields also takes in those affected by many of the contemporary wars that have ravaged the planet, and too many of our pupils have been forced from the lands of their birth by conflict and death. Remembrance Day is not an abstract moment of reflection for some at our school. The war memorial at the very entrance to our school seems to commemorate that.

My AS class met today and together we read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see my post yesterday), watched a film of the coffin’s passage from France to Westminster, and the discussed the last days of the war. Then we read extracts from Max Arthur’s excellent ‘Forgotten Voices’, the words of those who knew how it felt on the 11th of November 1918.

The answer is not romantic. In London celebrations ensued. Elsewhere, exhaustion and sorrow reigned supreme. As Sergeant Major Richard Tobin of the Hood Battalion testified:

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste, and the friends I had lost.

The discussion we had about these feelings was perceptive and, for me, moving. At the end of the lesson, the class and I (well, half of the class at least– the rest were on a trip) went down to visit our memorial and allow me to take a photograph. It’s not a solemn picture, and that’s as should be when your English teacher keeps messing up with his camera.

The Southfields AS English Literature class, sharing a moment. Left to Right: Solomon, Toni, Jarry, Aakanksha, Abdul and Ryan.

A good Remembrance Day.

The Unknown Warrior

London Victoria: the end of the line.

London Victoria: the end of the line. It is for me. If I want to go into London, as I occasionally do, chances are I’ll be arriving in this unlovely station, rail hub for the South of the city, nestled between Westminster Cathedral to its east and Buckingham Palace Gardens to the North. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Except Victoria was blighted by bombing during the Blitz, and many of the byways near to the station are lined by Sixties monsters, ugly buildings made of concrete and glass. The station itself is a depressing place. Always heaving with people, it’s a characterless zone of rubbishy commuter shops. My train pulls into platforms 9 or 10. Electronic barriers and concrete greet you. You’d never think history had profoundly touched this place.

Ninety years ago tonight, it did. At platform 8, at 8.32 p.m., November 10th 1920, a train pulled into the station, carrying something that would soon become immeasurably precious to those British people still mourning the dead of the First World War.

That thing was the body of an unknown British soldier. Previously, in act of elaborate symbolism, the bodies of four dead soldiers of unknown identity were exhumed from Ypres, Somme, Arras and Aisne. From these one was chosen ‘blindly’ to represent all the ‘unknown’ British soldiers– those soldiers without a name on their grave, or a grave at all. The body of this soldier, amidst much reverent ceremony, was shipped home to London. It arrived at Victoria the night before its transfer to a final resting place.

The Cenotaph, 1920. Note the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, bottom left.

The next day– the third Armistice Day– that soldier would be buried in Westminster Abbey. The coffin bearing the body was taken by carriage to Whitehall, where a new memorial to World War One, the Cenotaph, was unveiled by King George V. From there the king and the government’s ministers followed the coffin to the Abbey, where the body was buried in soil taken from the battlefields of Ypres, “where so many of [the soldier’s] comrades had lost their lives”.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, its dedication inscribed into black Belgian marble.

The act of burying this ‘Unknown Warrior’ was profoundly moving for many in the country. Many families across the nation had lost fathers, brothers and sons in the four years of war; too many families had no grave to visit to mourn their losses. It is a horrifying Commonwealth Graves statistic (found on the excellent 1914-18 website) that of all those British and Commonwealth forces killed in the First World War, 526,816 men have no named grave. Furthermore, while these dead men are listed on WWI memorials, of that figure 338,955 men were never buried at all. Their identifiable remains were never traced. That sickening fact alone explains why the act of honouring this anonymous soldier drew tens of thousands into the streets on the 11th, and many thousands more to the grave itself in the months and years to follow. Some may have felt that it was their loved one who was buried at the entrance to the Cathedral; many more will have found consolation in the country’s deep gesture of respect for the unknown dead.

Westminster Abbey

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was a profound moment in the mourning of many people in Britain in 1920, and it remains a focus point for remembrance today. Tomorrow, the grave of the unknown warrior will again be revisited with a wreath of poppies, signifying that the country has not forgotten the sacrifice of the body below the stones.

Tonight, as has happened every November 10th since 1920, a small ceremony was held at Platform 8, Victoria Station, London, to remember the arrival of the unknown soldier. There’s something heartening in the continuity of that ceremony, I think: progress, after all, means embracing the new, and honouring the best of the past. If you get the chance, and are someday stuck in the grim extended waiting room that is Victoria station, walk along to Platform 8 and pay your respects too.

If you want to learn more about the tomb of the unknown warrior, you can find out about it on the web. There’s an excellent page on the soldier and grave at the Imperial War Museum’s Collections; another at Home of Heroes; a good history with an amazing video of the actual passage of the body from France to London at the Westminster Abbey website; and a short account on the BBC history pages.