In schools across England and Wales, students received their results for their AS and A-level qualifications today. Earlier I drove down to Southfields, taking my new baby boy Ieuan for a quick meet and greet. There I found out the results for my students– always a nervous time– and managed to catch a few of them collecting their results in the school gym.
It’s been another good year at A-level for the Southfields sixth form: and my AS group has much to be proud of. It was lovely to catch up with one of my students, clearly chuffed to have achieved an A grade. Of course, amidst the jumping for joy there’s also disappointment– but at least at AS there’s always the January resits. It’s rare that a committed student can’t improve a grade.
To everyone who has used this site in the past year to help your A-level studies, I sincerely hope that it has helped you: and I hope that you have achieved all you wanted. To my students at Southfields, I want to declare my continuing admiration and respect for your hard work and your academic success. Well done!
So, there we have it. Another year’s summer examination over. What did you think of the exam this year?
I’m so-so on it. I think it’s hard to deny that question 1a was excellent; a letter from Lt. Colonel Rowland Fielding to his wife expressing his affection for his trench comrades, and alienation from the folks at home. If you couldn’t answer this question and link it to your wider reading, you really had no right to be in the examination at all.
Question 1b, however, was much more tricky and debatable as a test offering.
If you studied the Stallworthy anthology, you were offered a two choices. The first question asked candidates, ‘How far would you agree that the poems by women in this selection present significantly different views from those written by men?’. This is a nice but problematic question, given that there are only two poems written by women in the entire selection of sixty-eight poems. If a candidate doesn’t know at least one of these poems, he or she is, to put it frankly, stuffed. If they do, the world is their oyster. It’s a massive shame, I think, that the examiners decided to examine a fundamental question about gendered perspectives on the war through what are undoubtedly peripheral poems in the selection. Better to test on Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ and allow the better candidates to reach out to ‘Subalterns’ and ‘Rouen’.
The second option in Question 1b was based on Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, asking students to contrast attitudes in the poem to those elsewhere in the selection. Now, in terms of commenting on form, structure and language, this is great selection. The eulogising of Gregory’s death, along Yeats’ attribution to Gregory a higher impulse than patriotism, makes this a good poem to compare to other poems that indulge in either. Yeats’ later ‘Reprisals’ can be referenced and contrasted. Moreover, in his editorial choices, Yeats also links directly to Owen and the whole question of the viability of war poetry. On the surface of things, this seems a cracking selection.
Yet I think there is a problem with this question too. Our group spent just under two weeks studying Yeats and the five poems in the selection; more than enough time, you might think, to get to grip with his poems. Yet the profoundly important Irish context makes these poems difficult and daunting for students already getting to grips with the massive historical challenge that is the European theatre of the First World War.
Difficult is fine, of course. Accessible is another. The problem with question 1b in this exam, I think, is its accessibility to A-level students studying First World War poetry through the Stallworthy anthology. When viewed in combination, the questions selected should have allowed all students to display their knowledge, at the high and low ends. And when viewed in combination, I think it is hard to argue that that Question 1b allowed students to do this.
Was this was a fair examination, then? I’m not sure. In some ways I think that this was a good exam that was unnecessarily obscure in at least one of its questions for section 1b. Personally I’m tired of the needless obscurity that examiners seem to habitually indulge in: but I’m not sure that this is a prime example of this habit since this exam began three years ago.
I’m going to throw this question out to others– to you, the students who sat it.
Or it is if you’re sitting your AQA AS English Literature examination tomorrow. There are a lot of you out there for whom Monday is your big day– at any rate, the viewing figures for this site have gone through the roof. Move Him Into The Sun hit a remarkable milestone today: over 25,000 hits in this, its first year. We’ve had over 1,000 hits today alone. That’s a lot of people revising! It can’t just be the members of my fabulous class at Southfields.
So doubtless you’re a little nervous. Perhaps even anxious. Or desperate. Or terrified!
All these responses are natural. I guess you’ll know in your heart of hearts whether you’ve put in the hours throughout the year. If you have, try not to worry. Even if the exam tomorrow is an absolute nightmare, you’ll still find a way to show off your knowledge. If the question you’re asked isn’t perfect, first, take a breath. Don’t panic. Remember how interlinked so many aspects of the war are, and contemplate how you can link what you do know to what you’ve been asked. You’ll find a way. Remember, too, that the person marking your paper isn’t a monster. They’re looking to reward you for what you write. So after that initial sinking feeling, don’t freeze.
Some of you will know that you could have, should have worked harder. We’ve all been there. Well, the first thing to say is that, even if everything goes terribly tomorrow, you’ll have the chance to resit again in 8 months: that’s a lot of time to work to make things better. Some of you will be kicking yourselves because you’ll have only discovered what a fascinating subject you’re doing as you desperately try to catch up. Well, if that’s the case, you’ve learnt something precious– and who knows? Perhaps the exam will ask you about those things you do know well. Optimism is as good as pessimism at this point.
What will come up tomorrow? Who knows. You can only make educated guesses at this kind of thing. If I were setting the exam, I’d say that we were overdue for something on Sassoon or Brooke– something related to patriotism and protest. I’m also waiting for Isaac Rosenberg to crop up sometime– his ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is such a richly associative poem, of such quality, that I’m sure we’ll see it feature one year in question 1b.
But I’m useless at predicting these things. Honestly. Don’t let me panic you: historically, I’ve had a 0% hitrate at this kind of guessing game. At the end of the day, it’s preparation that counts, not soothsaying.
So, one last piece of advice: get to bed nice and early tonight, and when you get up tomorrow, have a nice, big breakfast before getting to school in plenty of time. Rest your brain and body before the test ahead!
What was life like for the average soldier in the First World War? It is, of course, a crucial question that every literature student studying the war should be able to answer. If we don’t know what the experience of the average Tommy was, how can we make reasonable judgements on the representation of the war by poets, dramatists and novelists?
Is this poem sentimental? Is that dramatist being sensational or realistic? Is this novelist describing the ordinary– or the extraordinary? You can’t function as a literary critic without making these kind of judgements. And of course, if you’re an AS student with AQA, you’ll know that one of the Assessment Objectives that you must meet in coursework and examinations is to “Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received”. Which means that when studying for the AQA AS exam, a knowledge of history matters.
So: here are some links that will help you to understand what life on the front line was like for your average infantryman and soldier.
The BBC’s history website, as ever, provides excellent resources for those studying the First World War. Their six-part World War One movie presents an accessible visual account of a soldier’s life, from ‘Volunteering and Recruitment’ onwards. The site also has a powerful account of his wartime experience from Harry Patch, one of the last British survivors of WWI.
Durham University also has a fabulous website entitled ‘What was it really like to fight in the First World War?’. Its gateway allows you to explore the everyday life and combat experience of soldiers through a number of primary sources. I found the page that describes the structure of a typical infantry regiment during the war very useful- it can be really confusing trying to grasp the hierarchy of platoons, companies, regiments, battalions and so on. Well, it’s all here.
Chris Baker’s website, ‘The Long, Long Trail’ goes into even more detail about the composition of an infantry battalion, and you can find it here. But it is his resource, ‘Soldier’s Life’, that every conscientious AS student should read. You can learn about Basic training in Abergele; look at birds-eye views of trench designs; look at a table of all the crimes a British soldier could commit, and the punishments they might face; and see, movingly, the Army telegrams and forms that were sent home in the event of death. This is one of the best First World War resources on the web.
Over at the History Learning Site there’s a short account of what an infantryman’s life was like, with especial focus on Lewis gun teams. These were the men who wore what was known as the suicide badge, ‘LG’. It was rumoured that the badge meant death if captured by the enemy, such was the loathing reserved for enemy machine gunners. In fact, as Robert Graves testifies in ‘Goodbye to All That’, neither German nor British Prisoners of War were safe when captured by the enemy: loathing and mission expediency all too often led to impromptu executions.
Finally, the essential way for a literature student to learn about the life of soldiers during the First World War is to read the memoirs produced by those who fought. When asked what memoir is best for A level students to read about the war, I always recommend the book mentioned above: ‘Goodbye to All That‘. Graves’ book is vivid but unsentimental. Graves himself is humane but can be almost chilly in his objectivity when writing about his wartime experiences. This temperamental combination of heart and head is an excellent feature for a war writer to have (the best example of this kind of writing isn’t a WWI memoir at all, but George Orwell’s later Spanish Civil War memoir, ‘Homage to Catalonia’). Graves also gives an important first-hand account of Sassoon’s war protest, vital for anyone studying WWI literature to know about.
Of two other memoirs I particularly recommend, the first is Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised ‘Memoirs of An Infantry Officer’. Sassoon’s testimony about the First World War is so interesting and central to First World War literary studies that you really must read this book, even if only through extracts. It’s not an easy book to read– but it certainly is rewarding. The second is Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’. This book provides a much needed German perspective on the fighting, and has the pointed quality of a well whittled stake: Junger was something of a ‘happy warrior’, but is never sparing on the realities of combat. There are many other excellent memoirs, however: the opinions of this reviewer at World War One Battlefields can be trusted.
Finally, for the adventurous reader (or the foolhardy) I recommend David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’— or at least the first chapter of Jones’ book. This is a tough read for some, but the beginning is very accessible as an account of decamping from training ground to war. Jones’ account is also unlike those above, because it is the account of a private rather than an officer: reason enough to read him. Buy a photocopying card, go down the library, copy the first chapter and see what you make of it. You may push on with Jones to the end.
As a last recommendation, for brevity and precision in describing what life for the average Tommy was like, there is a short but excellent book published by Osprey books, ‘British Tommy 1914-18’. Watch out, though, this one’s expensive: buy it used, maybe. In fact, as with all the books mentioned here, seek them out second-hand first, at sites like AbeBooks.com, or down your local second hand bookstore. They’ll be cheaper, and you’ll be recycling. Save your money for the university fees.
That’s right! Today is the 23rd of February, 2011. An auspicious day. Yet, we must leave. Let us climb aboard our time machine.
We hop on board the rickety machine, you and I.
Night follows day like the flapping of a black wing as we speed to the morning of the 23rd of May, 2011, three months from now.
There, we climb off the machine. It is a typical early summer’s day in London. From a black sky drops hail the size of golf balls, smashing violently all around us: we run towards the nearest building, and find ourselves outside a curious hall.
There are a strange people here. They seem a little like you– but different somehow. They are thin, and seem to lack sleep. Some have their eyes closed as they mumble to themselves. Words? Numbers? It is hard to tell. One male, tall, seemingly energetic, laughs nervously as he looks from his papers to his watch.
You suddenly halt. At the entrance to the hall, a door opens. You grab my arm. There!– at the front of the queue!– who is that person that looks– so much like– you?
It is you.
This is the moment before you sit your AS level English paper, on May 23rd, 2011.
[Once you’ve linked to the page, you’ll see a tab called ‘Key Materials’ underneath the four handsome Aryans that AQA have chosen to advertise their qualifications. Click on this and go down to ‘Past Question Papers and Markschemes’. Then select one of the three exams that have been held so far. Good luck!]
“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. Heenjoyed 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?
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 Youthis of unparalleled use for AS level students. The above quotes are from the short essay on Grenfell in this work.]
It was a couple of summers ago when a friend and I cycled to Canterbury. It was during the holidays and I’d been teaching First World War literature to A-level students like yourselves for two years. Now, I was pretty foolish in attempting the ride. I hadn’t been on a bike in six months and so had exactly six months of accumulated flab to carry on the journey. I was also stunningly unfit. By the time we reached Canterbury, I’d had to buy a new, soft bike seat because my rear end had been bruised and shredded. Not dignified!
Anyway. When we finally trundled into Canterbury, we decided to go and see the Cathedral, walking around the grounds with our bikes. It was while nosing around the close that I saw something that rather discombobulated me.
In the gardens in the eastern part of the Cathedral grounds, I found a stone memorial to the First World War. I looked it over. It was, as many of these memorials are, a moving testament to the dead. Yet as I read, I noticed that the dedication read not ‘1914-18’, but ‘1914-19’.
At that moment, a mild panic swept over me. Was it possible, I thought, that I had been teaching the wrong dates for the First World War for two years?
It’s the kind of thing that makes you reel for a second and question everything. Do cats and dogs secretly get on? Does night follow day– or day follow night? Is the Pope Catholic?
The solution to the riddle was simple, however; the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919, though the armistice took place, as we all know, on the 11th of November, 1918. Hence ‘1914-19’: though perhaps, if German paper Bild and some of the British broadsheets are to be believed, it should be re-engraved ‘1914-2010’.
For in an interesting historical twist that will come as news to the generations who have lived between 1918 and today, the press have been reporting that the First World War only officially ended a week last Sunday.
Here’s the key: 92 years after the end of the war, Germany has made its last reparation payment of £59m to Great Britain. Reparations are compensation payments for wrongs done: Germany was held responsible for the war and forced to make massive reparations by the Treaty of Versailles. It was so punishing a schedule of payments– pushed for heavily by victorious France– that the level of debt that Germany was thrown into is today widely held to have contributed to the rise of Nazism. The Guardian writes a short but interesting article, ‘Why does Germany still owe money for The First World War?’ explaining the peculiar phenomenon. It just goes to show that even today we still live with the effects of World War One.
While you’re there, you may want to check out the Guardian’s First World War site. It’s not compendious, but it does have lots of interesting little pieces– like the articles on Harry Patch and the Guardian Series on the Great War. Check it out.