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.

It’s St. David’s Day!

So indulge me please as I dedicate a posting to Wales and the Welsh in poetry and prose from the First World War. You should expect nothing less from a Griffiths on March 1st.

A quick story. My wife is American and over a decade ago, before we married, I took her back to visit the Welsh town where I’m from. It’s a place called Llanelli. That weekend the national rugby team were playing at Llanelli’s famous rugby ground, Stradey Park. A marching band were in attendance and the crowd, jammed into the little stadium, were singing traditional Welsh songs with gusto: Sospan Fach, Calon Lan, Cwm Rhondda. It was a great warm up to the big game. The marching band began to come down to our end of the field. My wife, a little disconcerted, points to the band.

‘What is that?’

I say, ‘It’s a marching band, clever.’

‘No, no,’ she says, laughing. ‘What is that?’

She points to the front of the band. There is a goat being led on a rope by a soldier in a red coat and white hat. People are cheering.

‘Oh, that’s the regimental goat,’ I say.

‘The regimental what?’ she says, laughing.

‘The goat,’ I say again. ‘The regimental goat. A goat that belongs to the army regiment. It’s at all the Welsh games. I think it’s called Shenkin.’

At this, the American erupts into laughter. “I love it,’ she laughed. ‘A goat. At every game. Great!’ There followed a number of comments about how small the ground was, how great the goat and the singing was. She even enjoyed watching the rugby. Reader, I married her.

Shenkin the Goat.

So why on earth was there a goat at the game?

Shenkin was the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Army regiments across the world often have peculiar traditions and rituals; a culture all of their own that their soldiers preserve. The story of the goat goes back to Victorian times and the Crimean War, when the goats were actually eaten by the soldiers. One night, after a sentry fell asleep on duty, a goat woke up the regiment as the Russian enemy started to attack, saving the men present from massacre. The Royal Welch have had a goat for a mascot ever since. Since the regimental system has always been tied to particular areas, the Royal Welch– and its goat– have represented Wales and Welsh pride for many years. And in terms of reading about the First World War in poetry and memoirs, Welshmen, the Royal Welch– and other Welsh regiments– are better represented than many others.

Why? Two great literary names, to start with: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Neither were Welshmen but both were officers with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their brilliant accounts of the First World War, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’, memorialise the actions of the Royal Welsh at infamous battles like that of Mametz Wood. These aren’t patriotic accounts: as Graves noted “Patriotism, in the trenches, was to too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out” (p.157, ‘Goodbye to All That’, Penguin 1960). But they do give intense pictures of what Welsh soldiers were like in the First World War.

Graves also spent time with the Welsh regiment (Note the difference in spellings!). The Welsh Regiment was a “rough and tough” regiment, less professional than the Royal Welch. Non-conformists and North Walian hill farmers– stolid, highly independent people– were among their ranks. Here’s an atmospheric account of the Welsh– and Graves– going to the trenches for the first time, under bombardment.

Collecting the draft of forty men we had with us, we followed… through the unlit suburbs of the town– all intensely excited by the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. None of the draft had been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sung Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when pretending not to be scared; it kept them steady. And they never sang out of tune.

We marched towards the flashes, and could soon see the flare lights curving across the distant trenches. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Presently we were among the batteries. from about two hundred yards behind us, on the left of the road, a salvo of four shells whizzed suddenly over our heads. This broke up ‘Aberystwyth’ in the middle of a verse, and sent us off balance for a few seconds; the columns of fours tangled up. The shell went hissing away eastward… (p.81)

Graves is given a lecture about managing the soldiers in the Welsh regiment on his arrival at front by Captain Dunn:

These Welshmen are peculiar. They won’t stand being shouted at. They’ll do anything if you explain the reason for it– do and die, but they have to know the reason why… They are good workmen, too. But officers must work with them, not only direct the work… (p.86)

Welsh singing is a source of constant admiration in poetry written about Welsh soldiers in the First World War. In the anthology, of course, we have Sassoon’s great poem ‘Everyone Sang’, about the celebrations at the Armistice, which you feel must have been influenced by serving in regiments of singing Welshmen:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Another great poem that doesn’t feature in the anthology is Ivor Gurney’s ‘First Time In’. Ivor Gurney is one of the most underrated war poets of the First World War: a talented composer but mentally brittle, he went mad after the war’s end. He leaves us this poem about going, like Graves, up to the front for the first time– and encountering, to his surprise and wonder, a Welsh regiment.

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

I realise that I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen, an English son of the border country, with a great love and longing for Wales. Neither have I dwelt on the remarkable Welshman David Jones, a private in the Royal Welch, whose work I shall be returning to very soon: but time, I’m afraid, doesn’t permit.

Let me then end somewhere near I started, at Stradey Park, listening, with my wife-to-be, to the crowd sing ‘Sospan Fach’. ‘Sospan Fach’ is one of Wales greatest folk songs, a shaggy-dog story about a Welsh housewife having a bad day. I once told an Irish friend what the nonsense-lyrics meant, and he was tremendously disappointed. “I thought it was about God or angels, or something of that kind”, he laughed.

Well, the song clearly made an impression on Robert Graves too. He produced his own poem entitled Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan), which obviously re-imagines some of the episodes from ‘Goodbye to All That’ I’ve printed above. With it I’ll end this tribute to Wales and the Welsh in the First World War on St. David’s Day:

Four collier lads from Ebbw Vale
Took shelter from a shower of hail,
And there beneath a spreading tree
Attuned their mouths to harmony.

With smiling joy on every face
Two warbled tenor, two sang bass,
And while the leaves above them hissed with
Rough hail, they started ‘Aberystwyth.’

Old Parry’s hymn, triumphant, rich,
They changed through with even pitch,
Till at the end of their grand noise
I called: ‘Give us the ‘Sospan’ boys!’

Who knows a tune so soft, so strong,
So pitiful as that ‘Saucepan’ song
For exiled hope, despaired desire
Of lost souls for their cottage fire?

Then low at first with gathering sound
Rose their four voices, smooth and round,
Till back went Time: once more I stood
With Fusiliers in Mametz Wood.

Fierce burned the sun, yet cheeks were pale,
For ice hail they had leaden hail;
In that fine forest, green and big,
There stayed unbroken not one twig.

They sang, they swore, they plunged in haste,
Stumbling and shouting through the waste;
The little ‘Saucepan’ flamed on high,
Emblem of hope and ease gone by.

Rough pit-boys from the coaly South,
They sang, even in the cannon’s mouth;
Like Sunday’s chapel, Monday’s inn,
The death-trap sounded with their din.

***

The storm blows over, Sun comes out,
The choir breaks up with jest and shout,
With what relief I watch them part–
Another note would break my heart!