Willie visits Captain Pasley’s parents’ farm at Tinehely. He feels hollowed out by the prior day’s events and as he walks through Dublin he notices first the repair of the war-damaged city and then, as he walks down Marlborough Street, a group of children throw stones at him. They believe he is a British soldier and taunt him to go home. He tells them that he is home.
At Tinehely he encounters a Protestant vicar as he climbs the hill to the Pasley’s. The vicar’s kind words to Willie almost make him weep.
When Willie reaches the Pasley house he is full of misgivings about visiting. He wonders at the reasons for coming. When he knocks on the cottage door he is greeted by a kind and welcoming woman who, it transpires, is Captain Pasley’s mother. He talks awkwardly, stiltedly, of his admiration for her dead son. Mrs Pasley observes that Willie misses him; this profoundly affects Willie, and Pasley’s memory becomes intertwined with his memories of all the dead comrades he has known. Willie curses his foolishness in visiting and being unable to say how he feels. Nonetheless, Mrs Pasley tells Willie what a comfort his visit is. At the return of Mr Pasley, the group has tea together, and later Willie is walked by Mr Pasley to the railway station. Mr Pasley shows Willie Captain Pasley’s gravestone, which expresses pride in his son’s sacrifice for ideals of King and Empire. Willie comforts the grieving man.
Making a connection in Dublin to return to the front, Willie is surprised by Dollie at the railway station. Annie and Maud have brought her to say goodbye, and hang back behind the barrier instead of speaking to Willie, but he is delighted to bid farewell to his youngest sister.
Willie returns from the front to Dublin Castle and is so changed that at first he is not recognised. He is greeted happily by Dolly and Maud, but Annie speaks to him sharply about soldiers who supply rebels with guns: she can barely hide her anger. James Dunne returns home. Willie does not expect the belligerence and cold fury that he is met with by his father. The policeman speaks angrily of the death of one of his recruits at the hands of the rebels, his anger at his son’s letter and speaks of his own responsibility and authority. Willie is conciliatory but his father launches a bitter diatribe about his son’s treacherous betrayal of all he stands for. Willie leaves the apartments and goes out into the night.
He makes his way to Gretta’s home in the slums. The thought of Gretta sustains him in his misery and he decides to ask her to marry him. When he reaches Gretta’s room, however, he finds her nursing a baby. Gretta tells Willie the child is her own: she has married. She tells him that she wrote a letter to him which had had no reply— a letter prompted by the earlier letter she had received from one of Willie’s friends. Willie feels dread as she explains that she knows about his encounter with the prostitute in Amiens. He reads the letter anonymously sent to Gretta, then makes a sad confession and apology to her. Gretta cries. The two manage a kind of heartfelt understanding before Willie leaves: Willie admits to the truth of Gretta’s father’s criticism, that he did not know his own mind.
Willie leaves in misery, and spends the night in a dosshouse.
News of the death of Willie Redmond, Irish MP and the brother of John Redmond (the Irish Parliamentary Party leader) shocks the men on the front. It affects Willie, but devastates Father Buckley. Willie offers his condolences to Buckley at the latrines. Buckley takes some consolation in the recent bonhomie between soldiers from Northern and Southern Ireland after the Battle of Messines, calling it “Willie Redmond’s moment”.
After short lived fame as victors at Messines, Willie’s regiment find themselves transferred to Ypres. The persistent rain has flooded the area and the mood of the men becomes depressed again. Ypres is thick with mud and under constant bombardment. The bodies of the dead of previous battles at Ypres are uncovered by the deluge. Willie is affected by the bleakness of the new situation.
As they march across northern Flanders, Willie, Joe Kielty and Timmy Weekes console themselves with humorously seditious talk of the war, its violence and its apparent purposelessness. When they finally reach their positions on the front line they find the trenches completely degraded and have to rebuild them under fire. The trench walls encase maimed bodies and the men work without food for two days. Father Buckley works at night to find the remnants of the dead, to bury them.
On the third day the 16th leave their trenches and attack slowly over a mile of deep mud. Willie’s platoon are in the first wave. Their attack is easily stymied by machine gun fire and there are many further casualties as the German army counter-attacks. Willie is distressed to see Father Buckley digging a grave for a soldier in the face of the attack. A second supporting wave of British soldiers finally relieve Willie’s platoon, and they return to the support line.
The day after the battle news comes of the vast number of dead in the attack, of a stray mustard bomb hitting a regimental HQ- and the death of Father Buckley. Willie is upset, and accounts of the priest dying at an aid post confuse Willie.
Major Stokes visits the forward line to inspect the trenches in a strange humour. He approaches Willie Dunne and quietly asks of Willie, ‘no hard feelings, Private?’ Willie makes clear he has no feelings of resentment or anger, and Stokes, reassured perhaps, moves up the line.
The 16th remain in the line for fifteen gruelling and dangerous days in the rain and mud. Neither supplies nor planned relief reaches them. Christy Moran surprises Willie with leave to go on furlough on the recommendation of Father Buckley. As Willie leaves for Dublin, Moran tucks his medal into Willie’s great coat as a keepsake.
It is June of 1917. The I6th find themselves about to make an eastward attack on Wytschaete, a village on the Messines Ridge, held by the German army. An artillery barrage has been ongoing for three weeks, and the preparations for the coming Battle of Messines have been thorough. The men recognise this state of preparation as unusual during the war: Christy Moran puts it down to the new General in charge of the operation.
Before the battle, amidst the terrifying noise of the guns, Moran confesses to his comrades why he joined the army. Falling asleep whilst smoking in bed, his wife’s hand is badly burnt so that she cannot work as a seamstress. Moran joined the army in order to support her. This is a difficult confession for the bluff but sensitive Moran, and he dreads that the men will laugh at him, but they are respectful and tell him that they are sorry for his wife’s suffering. This is a moment of intense emotion for the sergeant major, who is distracted as he waits for the order to attack.
Three mines are simultaneously set off under the German positions, and the explosion is massive and astonishing. The attack begins and Willie and his platoon go over the top in the leading wave. As they march up towards the ridge, they receive no enemy fire because of the creeping barrage that covers them. When the barrage stops, machine guns begin to fire on the men. Christy Moran captures a pill-box, killing two men in the process. Members of the Irish and Ulster regiments greet each other as they push on, unmolested by German fire. Second lieutenant Biggs orders Willie and to stay whilst he fetches Moran back: he is killed by a flare, but eventually Moran retires to the Willie’s position himself. He tells of the celebrations of the united regiments ahead. All the soldiers are amazed by the success of this complete victory.
After winning a medal for valour, Moran is amongst those honoured by a visit of King George himself to the line. Despite Moran’s nationalist passion, he is pleased by the monarch’s visit and tells Willie that he spoke to the King.
The 16th is then moved again, this time back to Ypres. The regiment falls under a new general, ‘Gough the Mutineer’, a British officer who was known for his antipathy to Home Rule. Moran humorously voices his sense of foreboding at the prospect.
The 16th find themselves back in the line in a quiet sector. It is the frozen winter of 1917, and the front is frigid with snow. The composition of the regiment is changing; fewer Irishmen are volunteering now, and the regiment sees an influx of English volunteers. Willie finds that the new men are much alike his Irish fellows.
The platoon has a new leader, second lieutenant Biggs, who proves an efficient leader. Willie meets a young Londoner named Timmy Weekes, who introduces himself with a funny joke about his surname. A Hampstead boy, Weekes is well read, and introduces the other men to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walt Whitman. Willie, like the other men particularly enjoys Dostoevesky’s ‘The Idiot’. For Willie, however, the murderous destruction of the war weighs ever heavier upon him, and the winter is prolonged and awful.
Eventually spring arrives and the men are moved once more in preparation for a new attack. Willie receives more letters from home, but still awaits a letter from Gretta. Before decamping, Father Buckley takes confession from Willie about his visit to the prostitute in Amiens. Willie then confesses his troubles with his father and talks of witnessing the shooting of the young Rebel soldier on the streets of Dublin. Buckley is a Redmondite, and explains his belief that the war is ultimately a fight for Ireland and Home Rule. Willie is doubtful and upset by his variance with his father on the matter. He receives his penance, and with a word of good luck for the following day’s attack, is dismissed.
I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.
Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.
“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.]