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So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

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‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

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Jon Stallworthy, poet and academic, who died in 2014. Read his obituary here.

 

Before we get started with reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, let me write one last post that may be useful to those who are trying to get to grips with Stallworthy’s anthology. A couple of years ago a student wrote to me, asking:

What could [you] say about the arrangement of the WW1 poems in the Oxford Book of War Poetry? I’ve read the introduction where Stallworthy said they were mainly chronological. I was wondering if you knew which were the exceptions and why? My teacher asked [me] to consider the arrangement in terms [of] the exam question, where I think I’m right in saying that one of the questions tends to ask about how a poem fits into the whole selection? Aside from being chronological are they arranged in any particular themes?

This question and the answer I gave to it has languished in a relatively unread section of the site. I think that as we shift focus for a while towards Barry’s novel it is good nonetheless to remind ourselves of Stallworthy’s impressive anthology and some ways we might approach how he organises the poems within.

As outlined by the AQA, there are 71 collected ‘poems’ in the First World War section of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ (poem 99) to Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’ (poem 169). That’s a big selection of poems, covering many aspects of the experience of the First World War. We might well wonder: are they arranged in any particular themes?

The answer I have to this question is ‘I don’t know’ and, as Professor Stallworthy died in 2014, I am unlikely to directly divine the intentions of the anthologiser. But let me briefly talk you through a rudimentary plan of attack I have used in teaching how to revise the anthology over the years.

Stallworthy’s Anthology is broadly chronologically organised, but we can trace an underlying logic within this order.

The first poems are early responses to the outbreak of war- Hardy, Brooke, Asquith, Grenfell and so on. Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ was published during the first week of the war- as early a response as you can get, really, from a great and elderly Victorian poet. Grenfell and Brooke’s poems are both romantic responses of young men to the war, and display attitudes to heroism and conflict that gradually become unavailable to the great war poets. McRae’s poem was written in May 1915 and so fits into the chronological pattern; but it also seems to evidence an early and relatively untroubled moral certainty about the conduct of the war.

Then we have the ‘transitional figure’ of Charles Sorely: a poet well versed in the classical poetic tradition who nonetheless seems a bridge between the naiveté of the earlier First World War poets and the later war experience, in which the deaths of millions become a reality.

There follow next two poems with very different moral and political positions regarding the British Professional soldier at the start of the First World War: the first a provocative contemporary musing by A.E. Housman, the second a relatively undistinguished but unashamedly political 1935 poem, in furious argument with the first.

A far more interesting and varied cluster of non-British poets follow, giving perspectives philosophical, aesthetic and political. Sandberg, Frost and Steven’s work evidence the objective and philosophical distance these writers have. Two striking French responses follow these, absurdist and surreal and stimulating; followed by five tumultuous poems by the great Irish poet, WB Yeats (Yeats will surely figure as a crucial poet in our upcoming reading of Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’).

The anthology then focuses on a cluster of collected works by the acknowledged greats of First World War poetry: Sassoon, Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg and Owen. This is the core of the selection, works of those soldier-poets who for better or worse have defined our understanding of the conflict ever since. Rosenberg and Gurney give us poems from a war experienced by preternaturally artistically talented Privates. Owen and Sassoon’s poems reproduce with skill the peculiar experience of sensitive, intelligent, well-read, traumatised Officers. Thomas’ poems bring an elegiac and mature contemplation of the inherent experience of loss that war inevitably involves.

The two great poet-memoirists of the war follow, Graves and Blunden; it is advisable to read these sections in tandem with their great works, ‘Goodbye to All That’ and ‘Undertones of War’.

Then we have what might best be called a rag-bag of notables writing about the conflict, from Aldington to Binyon. There are straightforward but satisfying lyric poems like ‘Winter Warfare’ and ‘Battlefield’, but formal innovation too- the ever popular (with my students at least) E.E. Cummings, and the ever unpopular David Jones, whose outstanding ‘In Parenthesis’ is read in extract form (and what, after all, do students know- that’s right, I mean you, dear reader) .

After this, Ezra Pound (Ezra’s a he, by the way) and TS Eliot stand together as the great Modernist shock troops of the large ‘looking back on the war’ section. Following them are two embittered (and great) late-Victorian poet-provocateurs, Rudyard Kipling and GK Chesterton. These two writers concisely give us the most precise evisceration of the politics of a generation that is found in the anthology. Then follow two female poets, M.W. Cannan and Elizabeth Daryush, thrown in almost as an afterthought (this near complete absence of female voices about the war is the gravest weakness of Stallworthy’s anthology- I have been waiting years for a bright young feminist to get their teeth into this peculiar matter). Finally there are three poems about the first world war written late Twentieth century poets who weren’t alive at the time of the conflict. These strike me as very much photographic ruminations on the First World War, and none of the poems are anywhere near to being the poet’s best; but they each evoke a particular mood of looking backwards from what has now become a grave and forbidding distance.

These compartments are my inventions, but they’ve always worked in the teaching. I hope they will help you get a handle on the anthology. I wonder, do any students or teachers want to add their thoughts on how they approach the anthology?

(Oh, and first prize for the student who can make sense of my title for this article.)

 

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As my last post noted, the AQA English Literature A exam has changed. The  poems from Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry are still examined, of course, and I hope my notes for those poems will continue to be useful for you in revising for their exams. The links to wider reading that you find here will continue to be relevant to your studies. But in the new exam, these poems will be read in tandem with another text– a novel or drama. Clearly, then, for this site to remain fully relevant to the exam, we need to engage with the new element, a post-2000 novel or drama, and find the ways in which Stallworthy’s selection of poems might be found to be relevant to such a text.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I hope will be a study project that allows us to explore some of the key texts in the 2016 AQA English Literature A-level examination.

Over the next few months my students and I will be reading and writing about Sebastian Barry’s novel, ‘A Long Long Way’. This is the text we have chosen at Southfields Academy to study in combination with the Oxford Book of War Poetry.

For revision purposes I will post onto the blog at the end of every chapter a brief summary of the events that occurred in that chapter, and pose some of the questions that I feel that the chapter opens up for the reader. My students will respond, giving their own commentaries on the text, and supplying resources to the project for their peers to read and consider.

You can respond to those commentaries, answer those questions and proffer an opinion on points of interest on the Barry’s novel as we go. Join us as we read, and help us to broaden our understanding of this newly examined text.

Moreover, because ‘A Long Long Way’ is examined by comparing what we find in the novel to what we find in the poems in Stallworthy’s anthology, we will consider exactly what poems from that anthology engage with or influence the text.

As we go, I will also offer links, resources and analysis for you to explore crucial parts of the text. What kind of novel is ‘A Long Long Way’? What social or historical contexts inform the text? What have been other readers’ responses to the text? These questions and others will allow us to take a critical stance on the text, and allow us to participate in ongoing literary debates.

Do read along with us.

 

I’ve just had an email from a reader that I think demands that we all, as teachers and students, reflect on the type of examination that is upcoming, and the types of questions we are expected to answer in June. This site was originally launched to help students to study towards a now-dead English literature exam: the AQA English Literature A exam (2740). The Oxford Book of War Poetry was studied by answering one of a pair of questions in Section B of that exam. It cannot be said enough now that this exam is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late exam. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace… this is an ex-exam.

The new A-level exam,  AQA English Literature A (7712) demands a very different approach, and as the good Mrs. Loman so passionately declared (look it up), attention must be paid.

Here’s the lovely letter:

“I love this website, it’s such a great resource! I’m studying this A-level distance learning and haven’t found much else useful. I was wondering if you still believe the AQA key poem list to be the same? Also if you were ever willing to do so, I’d be especially interested to see your take on some Wilfred Owen or Cummings as these are my favourite! Thank you for this site!”

The old AQA key poem list can be found here on this site, and with its mention, my blood ran cold. For this list is not relevant to the new specification. And it strikes me that some of you may think that it still is. Or even that your teachers may be telling you that it still is. It isn’t, because the whole way in which you are going to be examined on the the Oxford Book of War Poetry has changed, and changed radically. Here’s the answer I gave:

“The A-level examination has changed in the past year and the AQA A-level is now a quite different beast. It is crucial you get to know the specification (the map or plan for the taught course) well enough to know what you should study or learn for the exam: so much more so if you’re doing this alone.

You can find the specification here.

The old specification examined the Oxford Book of War Poetry in Section B in a pair of questions dedicated to the Oxford Book of War Poetry alone. The crucial difference in the new specification is that the poems examined in the anthology are compared to a novel or drama [I should have mentioned to the student here that all these texts will be examined in an Open Book situation– that is, you can take a clean copy of these texts into the exam]. One of the three texts you study for ‘World War One and its Aftermath’ MUST be written post-2000. Therefore, at Southfields, we are reading Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’ in tandem with Stallworthy’s anthology.

The style of question we are moving towards answering with the OBWP and Barry’s novel is in Section B of the paper and will read like this:

‘Suffering in war comes in many different forms.’

Compare the significance of suffering in two other texts you have studied. Remember to include in your answer reference to how meanings are shaped in the texts you are comparing.

You must use one prose text written post-2000 and one poetry text in your response. [25 marks]

This is a question in which you are expected to have an understanding of the theme of suffering in Barry’s novel (the post-2000 text here) and a poem (which you choose) from the Stallworthy anthology. This sample question can be found here, in the AQA’s exemplary specimen paper for the new exam. The markscheme for the same specimen paper can be found hereHere is the AQA page for assessment resources. [Sorry, teachers, if I’ve just given away the secret of your January mock exam, but clarity for students comes first.]

What should be clear is that you, as a student, no longer have to know nearly every poem in the anthology as in previous years (or indeed follow the previous AQA key poem list at all) but instead should have an in-depth knowledge of certain key poems that are illustrative of the themes or concerns of first world war literature and, vitally, the novel or drama you are comparing it to.

In the specification, AQA states that “areas that can usefully be explored [in studying the First World War and its aftermath] include: imperialism and nationalism; recruitment and propaganda; life on the front line; responses on the home front; pacifism; generals and soldiers; slaughter; heroism; peace and memorials; writers in action and writers looking back; the political and social aftermath; different and changing attitudes to the conflict; impact on combatants, non-combatants and subsequent generations as well as its social, political, personal and literary legacies.” (p.16)

Learn and understand a great poem like Sassoon’s ‘The General’, for example, and you open up the potential to write about life on the front line, generals and soldiers, slaughter, heroism, different and changing attitudes to the conflict, and political, personal and literary legacies, to name a few aspects of the war. The clever selection of certain crucial poems will give you flexibility in your exam response. But you must ensure you study these poems in tandem with the prose or drama text you study, for you will be comparing the two in the exam in terms of theme or study area, as above.

Please be reminded again that if you are studying Stallworthy’s ‘Oxford Book of War Poetry’ for the A-level exam, you MUST ensure that one of your drama or prose texts is written post-2000, or disaster is certain.

I hope this helps.”

And indeed: I hope this helps.

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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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A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.

 

The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.