The new BBC adaptation of 'Birdsong' brings the First World War to our TV screens. (Photo: BBC / Working Title)

The big news in TV in Britain this week is all about a new adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much-loved novel, Birdsong. ‘Sherlock’, it seems, has captured the nation’s hearts, and established the BBC as “the home of must-watch Sunday night drama”. ‘Sherlock’ is certainly doing something right– I’ve had one student ask me about reading the original stories, he so loved the newest Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation. I eagerly pushed him on. There is almost no reading pleasure as purely enjoyable as reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries.

I’m hoping that the TV adaptation of Birdsong will have the same effect on other students at Southfields– to run off and get the original book, or at least be inspired to learn more about the First World War and its literature.

Here’s a confession, though. I teach AS English Literature; I teach First World War literature. Yet I’ve never read ‘Birdsong’. I feel vaguely guilty about this every year. It is apparently the 13th most popular book that the British reading public has: there has to be a reason for that popularity.

So, I’m hoping that Abi Morgan’s adaptation inspires me too. The reviews seem to be good. I’m hoping that it’ll be something more than your average romantic historical drama– something more than some First World War booms and busts. We’ll see! Birdsong begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9.00pm.

Three big names from First World War literature feature this week after a trawl through the infosphere, looking for First World War literary tidbits. The BBC and the Guardian come up trumps again with features on two of the poets whose work is studied on the AQA AS English literature course, while a reminiscence of lost childhood provides us with an unexpected view of the life of Vera Brittain.

Edward Thomas.

Poems by Edward Thomas and Robert Frost can be found in Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, and you can find notes for the poems on Move Him Into the Sun. Frost was an unregarded young poet and Thomas a prolific but frustrated critic when they met in 1913, beginning a friendship that would change the lives of both men. Frost received encouragement from a sympathetic Thomas, who gave Frost’s work supportive and perceptive reviews. Thomas, on the other hand, was coaxed by Frost to convert the poetic prose of Thomas’ writings on nature into an experiment in poetry. Each was a catalyst to the achievement of the other, and a Guardian article by Matthew Hollis, ‘Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the Road to War’, brilliantly outlines the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Hollis writes as the author of a new book on Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which is this week serialised by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week. You can listen to readings from the book here on iPlayer.

We can also thank the BBC for a radio documentary that allows us an insight into the life of Vera Brittain through the reminiscences of her daughter, Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is, of course, one of the great memoirs of life during World War One, recounting the experiences of an intelligent young woman who suffered appalling personal loss during the conflict. Baroness Shirley Williams— perhaps better known today than her mother, and a significant political figure in late twentieth century British politics– is a likeable and sympathetic narrator of her own childhood years in ‘The House I Grew Up In’, a documentary aired on Radio 4 this week. Her mother emerges as an incredibly principled woman– a pacifist, anti-fascist and feminist– if somewhat distant from her daughter: a woman for whom life was, it seems, never easy. This is a fascinating view of Brittain from the engaging Williams. Not to be missed.

Shirley Williams with her mother, Vera Brittain.

A remembrance ceremony, conducted at the very edge of the Lochnagar Crater.

Dead metaphors. Every English student should be aware of them: little zombie bits of language that once had a life all of their own, but now wander near and far, open-mouthed, vacant.

Metaphor, as your English teachers will hopefully have taught you, makes speech and writing vivid. It carries over meanings or concepts from one area of knowledge to another, giving life to the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

So, to explain, I used a metaphor at the beginning of this article: I compared Dead Metaphors to zombies, speaking about something perhaps a little unfamiliar to you (dead metaphors) in the terms of something more familiar (zombies).

Over time, however, these new figures of speech– these metaphors– themselves become familiar through use. They no longer surprise or delight. The original life of the metaphor seeps away.

Ultimately you’re left with a word or phrase that is either a cliche (“I’m over the moon”, says the footballer without thinking, meaning he is delighted) or something that has become so common or familiar that you don’t even think of it according to its original metaphorical meaning anymore (“can you grasp that?” says the English teacher to her student).

So why the waffle about dead metaphors?

Well, the word ‘undermining’ is a dead metaphor. Today most people don’t think twice about the word when they use it. In everyday speech, of course, it means to secretly weaken someone– but we never think about where the word came from. That’s natural: dead metaphors are everywhere and if we stopped talking every time we used one, we couldn’t hold a conversation.

Once upon a time, however, to talk about one person undermining another person would have been a vivid, threatening use of language.

Undermining, in its original sense, meant to build a mine underneath something– say, a wall– and to use that mine to destroy the object. Mining has been used by the military since ancient times, but undermining became an important military tactic in the middle ages. Besieging armies would build tunnels underneath castle turrets, undermining the foundations of otherwise impregnable towers. They would then build fires (or, later, set off explosives) that would bring the mine down, and the castle walls with it.

That’s what undermining was: the way to secretively bring down a city or citadel. The first time someone said, “he’s undermining her” or “they are undermining us” must have been a striking use of speech. So striking, in fact, that someone listening repeated the metaphor– as did the next person. Or, perhaps, this figure of speech occurred to a number of different people as this frightening technology became more and more familiar to people. Ultimately everyone understood it in its new sense: to secretly weaken another person or thing.

We very often think of the First World War as a war of innovations in technology, of the shock of the new. Yet it is a striking fact that because 1914-18 was a static war of trenches and fortifications, this old military technique of undermining the enemy experienced a grim resurgence.

The Hawthorn Ridge mine, exploding on July 1st, 1916, the same day as the munitions that created the Lochnagar crater. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Today we’re going to take a look at a remarkable and horrifying example of undermining that took place during the First World War.

At the start of the summer it was announced that a new and extensive archaeological dig is to go ahead, mapping what is known today as the Lochnagar Crater. The Lochnagar Crater was created by what was the largest ever mine ever exploded.

The explosion took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme– July 1st, 1916. The Somme has today become a kind of shorthand for a battle with massive loss of life for little obvious gain. Yet as the Somme began there were high hopes that this was the battle which, after the terrible failures of 1915, would lead to movement on the Western Front. A massive attack was to take place on German lines around the river Somme, in the hope of both breaking through those lines and so relieving pressure on the French army at Verdun.

The attack on the German line near La Boisselle was to be led by three British Brigades, part of the 34th division. Two were ‘Pals’ brigades– the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish– raised from Irish and Scottish Communities in the North-East. The third, the 101st Brigade, was amalgamation of different companies and regiments that included the Grimsby Pals and other fighting units.

The German trenches had sustained a week of incessant bombardment from British artillery in the run up to the first day of the Somme. This alone was expected to have decimated the German defences and demoralised the soldiers sheltering below. Yet, in addition to this form of attack, the British generals wanted to punch a hole in the German line, and to do this they planned to explode a massive pair of mines beneath the German dug outs. The Royal Engineers were employed to dig beneath and undermine the German defences– setting 27 tons of high explosive to go off before the attack. In fact, 28 Royal Engineers were actually killed when the explosives went off at 7.28 on the morning of the 1st.

The explosion of the mine was devastating. It lifted the French earth and all those sheltering within it in a massive column 1,200 metres into the air. When the air cleared, what was left where the German dug outs had been was a crater 120 metres wide (that is, around twenty metres longer than a football pitch) and 20 metres deep.

You might think that what we today call the ‘shock and awe’ of such a massive explosion would alone result in a British victory in this sector of the battle of the Somme. What followed, in fact, was a disaster for the attacking British troops. The German trenches had been dug deep and those in them had been well sheltered from the hellish bombardment in the week prior. The many German soldiers who had not been killed by the mine explosion simply took their places again in the line once the British artillery ceased (allowing the British soldiers to go ‘over the top’).

The British infantry, doubtless expecting minimal resistance, calmly advanced in long lines– as they had been trained– into devastating machine gun fire. Over 6,000 British soldiers died in the attack for the slightest gain in ground. It is, in its own way, a typical story of the disastrously planned and bloodily fought first day of the Somme.

You can find out about the new archaeological exploration of the site and the hidden tunnels that run warren-like through the area by linking to this BBC Radio 4 Today news report. It’s clear that even those experienced archaeologists who have begun the task of finding the remains of humans and human activites underground are deeply moved by what they’ve found. You can also read an excellent report on the BBC website about the attack, ‘WW1 underground: unearthing the hidden war’, that contains an TV interview within one of the actual tunnels with historian Simon Jones, explaining what life was like as a miner. As a literature student, to get a sense of the claustrophobic horror that an ordinary soldier experienced in tunnels beneath the battlefields, you should read Siegfried Sassoon’s grim poem ‘The Rear Guard’ (found in the Stallworthy anthology if you are an AQA AS student). You can, of course, find my notes for this poem on Move Him Into the Sun: though as the poem is still in copyright, I can’t reproduce the actual text here. The events of Sassoon’s poem take place near Arras, not La Boisselle, but give a flavour of the sense of recoil a non-miner felt about these tunnels far underground.

Today, what came to be known as the Lochnagar crater is now a privately owned memorial that you can visit– and you can find its website here. The website provides shocking footage of a similar mine being let off at the Hawthorn Redoubt (pictured above) and its terrible effects. It’s a chastening lesson in the extreme violence all too common during the First World War. The word ‘undermining’ may never mean quite the same thing again.

As if the revision wasn't going bad enough, suddenly a flock of angry owls, led by a cat having a stroke, attacked the hapless student.

So it’s the night before your big exam.

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!

Good luck. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow.

(especially you, Southfields students!)

War Horse: Albert and Joey.

What with the rush towards the exams– some of you won’t need reminding that you’ve got your AS English literature examination on Monday!– I haven’t been able to post on here as I’d like. Apologies: but I do hope that the website has helped you all with your revision. Oh, and of course, the best of luck to you all!

In between all the marking and moderation, however, here at Southfields we managed to take a break last week– or was it extra work?– and go on a class trip to see ‘War Horse’ at the New London Theatre on Drury Lane.

Now, this isn’t a production that needs any introduction from me. ‘War Horse’, adapted from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, has been running successfully on the London stage for over four years now. It recently opened on Broadway. You can check out reviews of the play in the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times— and watch a trailer for the production here.

The play follows a horse, Joey, and his best friend Albert, as they go to war in 1914. First Joey is sold to the army by Albert’s drunkard father; later Albert follows by volunteering for the front in a quest to find his much-loved companion. Both Albert and Joey are pulled into the vicious maelstrom of the war, with Albert determined to reunite the pair.

Such is the basic plot of ‘War Horse’. It’s a pretty utilitarian and shaky thing, but as we all know by now, it is not simply the story that the audience comes to see: it’s the horses. ‘War Horse’ employs puppeteers to bring the horses alive on stage, and nose-twitchingly alive they seem too.

When our group went to see ‘War Horse’, I wondered about these life-size, wood frame puppets: would they be up to the theatrical hype? The answer is resoundingly ‘yes’: they are indeed magical, and their transformation from inert thing to living, breathing animal is child’s-play, in the best sense: a triumph of imagination over reality. The horses are, as they say, worth the price of admission alone.

Which is just as well. If what is best about this play is what is child-like– the production’s brave sense of play, imagination and adventure– what is worst about it is when it comes across as simplistic and childish. After a brilliant first half, depicting Joey and Albert growing up together and becoming inseparable friends, the play begins to unravel in quite an alarming way.

Once the horse actually becomes a war horse, we’re dragged on an interminable and sometimes confusing journey across the lines with Joey, who is inevitably badly treated (animals always seem to stand in for Christ in children’s books. They should have saved time in 33 A.D. and crucified the donkey). By the second half of the play we’re firmly attached to Joey, but we frankly don’t care about his new friends and enemies, who are so mawkishly or villainously characterised that you could hardly complain if any one of them were shot and boiled down for glue.

Meanwhile, there’s Albert, who once out in France persists in his monomaniac obsession with his horse. This is played quite lightly at first, for laughs, and the play is better for it. As the play moves on, however, Albert’s seemingly bottomless fixation on his childhood friend becomes first irritating then laughable; in the midst of a war in which over 16 million people died, there’s only so much anguish over a 900lb French steak that a fully grown adult can support.

Fortunately, the production helps to bring gravitas to the feather-light plot and characterisation. The remarkable tanks, shocking shell strikes, and the grim march of the wounded back to ship convince just as the horses do and the story doesn’t.

Still– and here’s the thing– it was still a wonderful evening. The horses and production were so remarkable, and the first half so charming, that the play could, in my opinion, support the fall-off in the second. And besides this, it was a wonderful night to share with my students, who were a credit to themselves and the school. Opinion amongst them were divided; most absolutely loved the show, but at least one didn’t like the production at all. All thought the trip was worth it though, I think. If you’re a student thinking of going, I would say get along to the theatre if you can– and come to your own verdict. It’s worth your time.

Claude Chaules, 1901-2011.

Claude Choules, a Worcestershire man living in Perth, Australia, has died at the age of 110. This in itself would be a remarkable thing, but Choules’ great age is only preliminary to a greater distinction. In the words of his autobiography, Claude Choules was ‘The Last of the Last’– the last known man to see active service in World War One. He died in his sleep in a nursing home on Wednesday night.

Claude Choules’ story, like that of Harry Patch, the last of the British soldiers who fought on the Western Front to die, is part ordinary, part extraordinary. You can read an article about his death on the BBC website: and there is a good obituary of the man in the Sydney Morning Herald.

These deaths are, in one sense, historically insignificant. That sounds coldly objective, even cruel. Of course the lives of these men touched many others, and their families mourn them. And of course, in the profoundest sense, no life is insignificant: as John Donne once put it, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind”.

Yet these were common men, common soldiers, like so many of the millions who died before November 11th, 1918. In many ways it is fitting that the last fighting men to die from the Great War were not men of rank or power. Claude Choules’ death reminds us of an event that is becoming ever more remote to us all: and while length of life alone does not demand remembrance, for those men who saw active service in the First World War, longevity is not a dry curiousity– it is a fortune, and an achievement.

Two soldiers make their way back to the front from Victoria railway station.

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.