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.

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Siegfried Sassoon, victorious in his riding days, 1911.

Today at Southfields Community College we held our A-level Easter revision sessions. It was great to feedback on students’ brilliant creative writing and push on with our preparations for the exams. Indeed, good luck to everyone who have their exams upcoming. Use the holidays wisely– but remember to find time to relax, too!

Before moving on from Sassoon in the anthology, I thought it might be useful to post a few links to resources about him on the web. And, if you want to refresh a little on Siegfried Sassoon ahead of the exams, then you’re in luck. Our friends at the BBC have archived a fascinating episode about Sassoon made for one of Radio Four’s best programmes, ‘In Our Time’. Three top Sassoon scholars and Melvyn Bragg discuss the man, his life, the war and his poetry. If you’re serious about success in a month and a half’s time, you really should make an effort to listen to this.

Radio Four isn’t the only audio resource for Sassoon you can listen to on the web. If you link to The Poetry Archive, you’ll find Sassoon reading ‘Everyone Sang’ and ‘The Dug Out’, in his expressive, cut-glass English accent.

Hop on from there over to the ever-useful First World War Poetry Digital Archive, where you can look through the Sassoon digital archive and find many of the original written drafts for Sassoon’s poetry. Read the excellent brief biography there, then search for any poem you’re interested in: if you’re interested in curiosities you can, for example, find ‘Glory of Women’ written on Craiglockheart War Hospital stationary. Moreover the website also has links to a number of useful sites that you can access, here.

Once done with Oxford you can then visit the competition at the Cambridge Library site, where you’ll find a series of pages dedicated to an old Sassoon exhibition, ‘Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, memory and war’. The library purchased a collection of Sassoon’s journals in 2009, and this site contains a number of his drawings and handwritten drafts of poetry. Most interesting, I think, are the journals that agonise over justifications for the war: “I wish I could believe”, he writes, “that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of the war… Our peace terms remain the same “the destruction of Kaiserism + Prussionism” – I don’t know what this destruction represents”. There are, however, also some rather more lighthearted pictures drawn by Sassoon as a ten year old that attest colourfully to the young boy’s love of hunting. All in all, some fascinating images.

Enjoy.

–and have a nice Easter holiday!

A message of joy: the war at an end.

NOTES

‘Everyone Sang’ relates Sassoon’s ecstatic— almost religious— joy on hearing soldiers singing, and is a song of praise for the men’s resiliance.

Everyone Sang: Communal singing was common in the trenches. Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Graves notes that whereas in other regiments singing was often limited to music hall numbers, Welsh soldiers sang hymns, often in Welsh. This singing, perfected in Chapel and Church, was often powerfully moving. It is possible that it is this kind of singing that Sassoon refers to. Critics have suggested that ‘Everyone Sang’ describes to soldiers’ reactions to the Armistice (Robert Graves interprets the poem in this way in ‘Goodbye to All That’). Others follow Sassoon’s own account in ‘Siegfried’s Journey’ that the poem is, rather, a more abstracted paean to change and the singing represents ‘social revolution’ (see W. Lawrence’s fascinating comment to this post, above).

STRUCTURE: ‘Everyone Sang’ is comprised of two stanzas of five lines length, rhyme scheme ABCBB.

“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;”: the “Everyone” of this poem refers to a group of men singing and celebrating. The emphatic description of ‘everyone’ singing captures the broader tone of celebration of the human spirit that this poem contains.

“I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom”: the conventional symbolism— that of a freed, flying bird embodying the human spirit— nonetheless captures the sense of release that the singing brings.

“Winging wildly across the white / Orchards and dark-green fields;”: the alliteration introduces a wheeling rhythm to the end of the stanza, until we gain the perspective of the freed bird, looking down on the countryside below. There is a real sense of the expanding horizons that the singing- and coming of peace- brings.

“on— on— and out of sight.”: a ponderous and deliberately slowed passage that reintroduces the listener as one gazing out at the freed bird as it flies away.

“Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;”: Repeating the literal phrasing of the poem’s first line, the beginning of the second verse is both literal and metaphorical. The voices sing higher and louder, but the ‘lifting’ of the voices here also suggests elevation here— a transcendental tone. This metaphor of “lifted” voices logically follows on from the prior image of flight.

“beauty came like the setting sun:”: Sassoon again uses conventional imagery, here that of the beautiful, setting sun. Sassoon uses a language here that in other hands might seem hackneyed or clichéd, but manages to convey a purity of experience. The simpler and more archetypal the imagery, perhaps, the better to evoke the emotional power of the singing men. The “setting sun” here suggests death, sublime beauty– and an end.

“My heart was shaken with tears: and horror drifted away…”: the emotional and spiritual power of the song moves the listener so that their worst thoughts and memories of the war “drifted away”. Through the singing they escape the war and rediscover their common humanity. This lifting of horror, like mist or fog, is captured in the pause denoted by the ellipses.

“O, but Everyone / Was a bird;”: the suggestive capitalisation of “Everyone” here seems to suggest that ‘everyone’ in the poem have for a short while have assumed the freedom of transcendence, of becoming more than themselves. Note the building intensity in this verse, as sub-clause follows sub-clause, leading to the cry of ‘O’, and sense of profound emotional release in the last two lines.

“and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”: The sense that the listeners experience is sublime and timeless is profound; moving beyond words, to suggest here a religious image of the eternal singing of men.

 

 

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem certainly has the most religious or spiritual tone of Stallworthy’s selection of Sassoon’s poetry. Stallworthy elsewhere praises ‘Christ and the Soldier’ as a dramatic example of Sassoon’s war poetry: and makes the keen observation that “his poetry, early and late can be seen to justify the label he attached to himself… ‘I am a religious poet’”. The question of the presence or otherwise of God during the war is a profound one, and is also tackled in Isaac Rosenburg’s ‘On Receiving News of the War’ (p.183). Outside the anthology, there are other poems similarly written about the power of song at war: ‘First Time In’ by Ivor Gurney, about encountering Welsh singers on arrival in the trenches; or to Robert Graves’ ‘Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan)’, about Welsh soldiers singing a traditional Welsh song.]

"You make us shells."

NOTES

This poem accuses British women of gaining vicarious pleasure from the war, and glorying in the fighting of soldiers abroad.

Glory of Women: ‘Glory’ is a religious word; a divine light that shines from the sacred. Something glorious is something worthy of honour, or praise— here, this poem purports to write about the honour or praiseworthiness of women. In this poem, therefore, the ‘Glory of Women’ is considered ironically.

STRUCTURE: ‘Glory of Women’ is a sonnet. The choice of a sonnet is again ironic— sonnets, of course, being traditionally associated with love. The poem is not necessarily a traditionally structured sonnet, however. The ‘volta’, or ‘turn’ of meaning or focus in the poem occurs before the sextet, as is traditional. There is a turn from detailing what Sassoon takes to be British women’s attitudes towards soldiering and war to a more savage imagery that shows the women to be deluded. There is also, unconventionally, an even more pronounced turn that occurs in the final three lines, as the shocking ending turns from British women to the German mother.

“You love us when we’re heroes…”: from the first, this poem has a confrontational,  accusatory tone, with the direct address of ‘you’ from a notional ‘us’; the voice of a male soldier. The idea of conditional love here— “when we’re heroes”— is the first sign of an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at women.

“Or wounded in a mentionable place”: the suggestion is that female loyalty depends on the wound that a soldier sustains, and that it must not be socially embarrassing for women to relate.

“You worship decorations”: the essential superficiality of the feminine viewpoint is suggested by the idea of worshipping “decorations”— another name for medals.

“you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”: Sassoon suggests that women romanticise the war, focusing on “chivalry” and honour. The war, meanwhile, is described as being precisely dishonorable: it is a “disgrace”.

“You make us shells.”: women, Sassoon suggests, are complicit in the violence, because they are involved in the manufacture of weapons.

“You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.”: the strong rhythm imparted by the alliteration here— “delight”, “dirt”, “danger”— gives a sense of a compelling parlour narrative.

“You crown our distant ardours…And mourn our laurelled memories…”: the most sarcastic lines in the poem, employing commonplace, romantic phrases and suggesting this is the limit of women’s understanding of war. To “crown… distant ardours” means to be the focus of the men’s desires; the “laurelled memories” talked of are the thoughts of the men killed and victorious (thus presented with laurel wreaths) in battle. Note the repetition of ‘our’ here; the opposition of men and women is particularly strongly sustained in these lines.

“You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’”: The beginning of the ‘sextet’ or final six lines of a sonnet. The poem turns from romantic images of men prevalent at home to the true actions of men in war. To ‘retire’, here, is a euphemism for retreat.

“Hell’s last horror… Trampling the terrible corpses— blind with blood”: The alliteration here accentuates the vicious and desperate retreat of the men. The aspirate ‘h’ sounds recall the heavy breath of the running men, the harsher ‘t’ sounds the crushing of bones underfoot, while the plosive ‘b’s almost mimics the projection of blood itself.

“O German mother dreaming by the fire…”: the sudden turn to the presentation of a German mother at home is surprising for the reader, after the focus on the insensitivities and moral complicity of British women in the war. In some ways she is presented more sympathetically than British women: her “dreaming”, because not elaborated on, doesn’t seem as immediately corrupt as that of British women.

“While you are knitting socks… His face is trodden deeper in the mud.”: The final couplet is deliberately shocking. The contrast between the thoughtful domestic scene and the utter savagery of a human head being stood on is horrifying, and meant as a corrective to the illusion that dominates the poem. The brutal truth, Sassoon insists, is a factual corrective to delusion.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that always prompts massive debate in my classes and its misogynistic tone well justifies it. ‘Glory of Women’ needs, however, to be fairly considered with those other poems that Sassoon writes at this time, in which he seeks to angrily identify those who hold some responsibility for the war. Outside of the anthology, ‘Glory of War’ contrasts interestingly with Jessie Pope’s upbeat ‘War Girls’, of course; within the anthology WWI selection, where women’s voices are massively unrepresented, it is interesting to compare this poem with Elizabeth Daryush’s ‘Subalterns’ (p.219) and May Wedderburn Cannan’s ‘Rouen’ (p.220).]

An early draft of 'The General' by Siegfried Sassoon- with accompanying cartoon!

NOTES

A General breezily greets a company of his men as they move up the line towards Arras. His incompetent planning will lead to their deaths.

The General: Pointedly anonymous in the poem. The General is a figurehead for the kind of planning that led to massive loss of life during the attritional warfare on the Western Front– Arras being a particularly grim example of the human cost of the war. The Second Battle of Arras was a diversionary battle that took place in April-May 1917 and was intended to draw strength away from a larger French offensive to the south at Aisne. While very successful at first, gaining ground and employing innovative new tactics, by the end of the offensive such advantage had been largely lost and over 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were dead.

STRUCTURE: ‘The General’ is written with a distinctive and upbeat rhythm that reflects the General’s manner and which ironically contrasts with the deaths that result from his incompetence. This rhythm is anapaestic. An anapaest is a three syllable foot that comprises of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. So, for example, the word ‘anapaest’ is, in fact, anapaestic, as we see here: a-na-PAEST. An anapaestic rhythm bounds and gallops forwards, with that third syllable in every foot being accentuated. There are four feet in every line of ‘The General’, meaning that this meter is known as ‘Anapaestic Tetrameter’. If we break down the rhythm in this way (an act known as scansion) then we can follow this rhythm. The second line scans, for example, like this: “When we MET / him last WEEK / on our WAY / to the LINE / ”. It is a strong, striding, strident rhythm, suitable for a poem such as this.

“‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said’”: the breeziness of the General and his pleasant demeanor is used as a powerful contrast to the consequences of his actions. Sassoon’s satirical representation of the General is clever: it suggests (perhaps unfairly) that his upbeat nature somehow reflects a lack of seriousness with which he takes his charge.

“on our way to the line.”: the soldiers are making their way to the front.

“most of ’em dead”: the inverted comma signifies the lower-class accent of the speaker and dropping of the ‘th’ sound. This class voice gives the poem a more subversive tone. The consequences of the cheery General’s actions are devastating.

“And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine”: the representatives of the General staff— those soldiers working administratively at the General’s command— were often intensely disliked by the average soldier. Here, their incompetence disgusts the soldiers.

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack”: the soldiers see the General as a ‘card’, or ‘character’. Their tone is generous, given the physical effort they are making (“grunted”). The names of the soldiers are common and denote that they are ‘typical’ Tommies. This is, obviously, an emotive move: the irony of the men’s appreciative statement shortly becomes clear.

“slogged up to Arras”: The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917 (see above).

“But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”: the single, end-stopped line at the end of the poem is dramatic, and is the pointed lesson of this poem: that the General and his staff are responsible for the death of the men.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This must be the most effective condemnation of the General Staff written during the First World War. Sassoon and Graves experienced firsthand the poor planning of the General Staff at the front; in Chapter 15 of Goodbye to All That, Graves’ memoir of the war, one particularly memorable fiasco is the La Bassee offensive of August 1915, where the Royal Welch were gassed by their own side.]

 

A stone stairway out of the vast network of tunnels dug around the French town of Arras by the Allies.

NOTES
As battle rages above, a soldier moves desperately through a network of tunnels and rooms, encountering the festering corpse of a dead man before eventually escaping the depths.

 

The Rear-Guard (Hindenburg Line, April 1917): The rear-guard is a detachment that protects the rear of a military force. The Hindenburg Line was a series of defences built in North Eastern France, constructed in 1916-17. The German Army retreated to this line of strengthened, deepened concrete trenches and bunkers, set on better defensible ground, in March 1917.  In April 1917 a French assault on the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg Line ensued, which the British supported by a diversionary thrust near the French town of Arras. This became the bloody Second Battle of Arras in which 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed and in which Sassoon fought with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon said of his experience at Arras: “The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description… our shelling of the line— and subsequent bombing, etc— has left a number of mangled Germans— they will haunt me till I die”. Sassoon himself was shot through the throat during the action and it was while recovering from this in Britain that he wrote his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’. The Battle of Arras and the assault on the Hindenburg line had a special horror for Sassoon, then. The poem may seems to be describing an experience in one of the tens of kilometres of allied tunnels dug in the chalky ground beneath and behind no-man’s land before the Battle.

“Groping along the tunnel, step by step”: The poem begins with a sense of struggle as the reader is thrust directly into the action, beginning with the verb, “groping”. With this the reader is made immediately aware of the sense of touch on which the soldier is dependent, and how difficult it is to negotiate the tunnel, “step by step”.

“He winked his prying torch with patching glare”: The darkness in the tunnel is absolute, save for the inadequate light from the soldier’s torch, which acts as a searching eye— winking, prying and glaring. The torch only illuminates in patches, however: the soldier cannot see all around him, adding to the sense of threat.

“sniffed the unwholesome air.”: Denied vision, the sense of smell becomes acute. The lack of vision in this poem becomes symbolic of a lack of rationality that becomes more acute as the poem goes on: the soldier must rely on more direct and possibly irrational senses, like smell and touch. Note the sibilance of “side to side, and sniffed”: suggesting sniffing itself, perhaps, or the serpentine sway of the torch. The air is “unwholesome” perhaps because of lingering gas— or death.

“Tins, boxes, bottles… the mattress from a bed”: The first stanza effectively establishes a subterranean world without light. The second stanza surprises, therefore, with a shift to more familiar and homely objects. The effect here, however, is to create a sense of weird uneasiness, of the familiar appearing strangely. Sigmund Freud called this effect unheimlich (literally, German for ‘unhomely’) and we translate it as the ‘uncanny’: its psychological effect is disconcerting.

“exploring fifty feet below / The rosy gloom of battle overhead”: the extreme depth in which the soldier moves implies an almost absolute removal from the world of the surface and the fighting above, imagined as a “rosy gloom”. Fire lights the smoke of battle, perhaps: but the “rosy gloom” also voices an almost attractive quality to the grim scene above, highlighting the sense of isolation of the soldier. There is a sense that the soldier is exploring a completely ‘other’ realm. The assonance here may also suggest the muffled resonance of the bombs above.

“Tripping, he grabbed the wall”: A return to the use of a verb to begin the line, highlighting a loss of control and again, the desperate dependency of the soldier on touch.

“saw someone lie / Humped at his feet, half hidden…”: The soldier discovers what he takes to be a sleeping man.

“‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep,)”: the tension that the soldier feels leads to a frustrated outburst: the parenthesis here explains the intense impatience and envy that the soldier feels for the “sleeper” he has discovered. Note, as ever, Sassoon’s assured use of colloquial language.

“Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap…”: The gradual shedding of layers of humanity in the poem so far culminates in the word ‘Savage’: summing up the sense of atavistic disorder the soldier finds himself in. ‘The Rear-Guard’ is in many ways about human beings reverting to a less developed, animalistic, inhuman state: perhaps this is why the poem at times is reminiscent of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the time traveler exploring the realm of the degenerate subterranean Morlocks. Loss of vision, rationality, co-ordination and disorder in an underworld hell represent the violent intellectual and moral collapse of the Western world.

“…the livid face / Terribly glaring up…”: a double meaning. ‘Livid’ of course means ‘angry’ but also originally and literally here, ‘black-and-blue’— the colour of bruises. The use of the present continuous— “glaring”— again gives the disconcerting sense that the dead man is dead, yet somehow alive.

“Agony dying hard… And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound”: The man’s face is frozen in a death-mask of horror and agony. “Fists of fingers” returns us again to a repulsive and frightening world of touch, here clutching the festering wound.

“Alone he staggered on…”: This line begins with a state and then moves to the verb, unlike those previous lines already commented on. The prime impression here is then of the soldiers loneliness in the tunnel and his sense of isolation as he stands next to the ten-day old corpse.

“Dawn’s ghost…”: the weak light of dawn is evoked in this supernatural metaphor. It is interesting to note that although this poem stages a classical descent into the underworld or journey into hell, metaphorically speaking the world above is a realm of the supernatural. Part of the bleakness of the poem is that neither upper nor lower realm has any sense of peace or consolation; unrest dominates both spaces, and the world of light, while a relief from darkness, remains troubling.

“…the dazed, muttering creatures underground”: the world below is not populated by human beings but by those reduced to inhuman ‘creatures’; demons, perhaps, or creatures from myth.

“Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.”: again, the use of onomatopoeia here (“boom”, “muffled”) gives a sense of the continuous din coming from the world above.

“…with sweat of horror in his hair,”: a last description that reprises the grim sensuality of the poem, especially that of touch: the soldier is in a cold, fearful sweat and feels this creep over the crown of his head in the stairway draught. The use of alliteration (“horror…hair”) suggests the heavy breath of the soldier.

“He climbed through darkness to the twilight air…”: the gathering purpose of the soldier is emphasised by the second line of the couplet, as the soldier escapes the tunnels and the dark— into the half-light of the world above.

“Unloading hell behind him step by step.”: the final line makes explicit the meaning of the narrative, as a journey into and return from the underworld— like Orpheus in Greek myth, or the Harrowing of Hell in the Christian apocrypha. Hell takes on something of its original religious power here. ‘Hell’ in everyday language or conversation is an abstract idea, a metaphor: “I’ve been through hell”, we say, but this is ultimately a figure of speech. However hell in the world of belief is not a figure of speech but a literal thing, an actual space. In this poem, the soldier makes a journey not into a metaphorical hell, but to a literal, twentieth century hell. “Unloading” conveys the physical relief that climbing out of the tunnel, and so climbing out of that underworld hell, brings. Yet the poem ends, bleakly, where it began: in ponderous movement, ‘step by step’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Rear-Guard’ is most obviously compared and contrasted to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, a poem that it may have directly inspired.]

NOTE:

Many thanks to Toni Peacock and her insight into the struggle of the soldier!

A painting of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpott. Painted in 1917, you can see the original at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

NOTES

In this poem an officer delivers a consolatory letter to a grieving mother concerning the death of her soldier son, Jack. She is proud of her son’s glorious sacrifice— but, on leaving, the officer reflects wryly on Jack’s cowardice and incompetence in the line.

STRUCTURE: Written in iambic pentameter, ‘The Hero’ comprises three stanzas of six lines length largely made up of rhyming couplets, save the first four lines of the second stanza, which have an alternating rhyme scheme. Rhyming couplets, of course, are particularly effective in relaying neat epigrams or moral statements. The simplicity of the rhyme scheme perhaps apes the newspaper poetry of the time, which often went in for sentimental attitudes about the heroism of the British ‘boys’ and their sacrifice. The first stanza could in fact stand alone as a very effective pastiche of such poetry. The second stanza sees a shift of narrative viewpoint, admitting a more complicated reality of appearance and lies. The third stanza contains the revelation of Jack’s true nature and death, subverting the sentimentality of the first.

The Hero: the ‘Hero’ of the poem is, of course, ironically termed so: Jack is the kind of malingering coward who earned the contempt of his comrades on the battlefield, especially in a well-disciplined regiment like the Royal Welch, in which Sassoon (and Graves) served.

“Jack fell as he would have wished / The mother said”: the stock figure of the grieving mother opens this poem: a familiar, emotive image of loss in war. Here, the mother uses an everyday euphemism for dying in war— “Jack fell”— that implies an honourable soldier’s death, falling in action.

“‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke…”: Colonels, those responsible for a regiment of soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved on behalf of the regiment. As Graves relates in ‘Goodbye to All That’, these letters were often a duty.

“‘We mothers are so proud / Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face bowed.”: The mother speaks as if for all British soldiers: perhaps the consolation that she finds in doing so is in subsuming herself in the collective loss of all the mothers of the nation. At any rate, these words do seem more sentimental than authentic: their clichéd expression helping to repress, perhaps, the great grief of the woman.

“Quietly the Brother Officer went out”: ‘Brother Officer’ is an unusual term— an example of military language being used in a way that is jarring at the beginning of the stanza. The camaraderie of the army, the special fellowship of men in service is introduced into the poem here.

“…poor old dear …gallant lies”: these words imply a distance that the first stanza’s heartfelt scene did not hint at.

“While he coughed and mumbled…”: the officer’s awkwardness in passing on condolences is understandable. The reason for the officer’s embarrassment only later becomes obvious.

“brimmed with joy, / Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.”: the alliteration in these lines, expressing the devastation of the mother, is clever. The effect of the repeated ‘b’s is to convey her restrained tears and give a suggestion of tremulously spoken words— of repressing the need to cry, of blubbering.

“He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine, / Had panicked”: it is interesting to note the recurrence of the name ‘Jack’ in Sassoon’s poems. Sassoon was known as ‘Mad Jack’ by his men because of his almost suicidal bravery in battle. To name the coward and object of contempt in this poem ‘Jack’, then, is an interesting turn. Perhaps this ‘Jack’ is a kind of alter-ego for Sassoon, as, in a sense, was ‘Mad Jack’; a guilty idea of another self against whom Sassoon opposed himself (as a poet-warrior, with some success).

“How he’d tried / To get sent home”: Jack has attempted to get a ‘Blighty’ wound— an injury that would get him sent home to ‘Blighty’, or Britain, in the slang of the time. This act of desperation— shooting oneself in the foot through sandbags, holding a hand above the parapet in a sniper zone, and so on— was not an uncommon recourse to those desperate to escape the Western front. 

“…and how, at last, he died, / Blown to small bits.”: the grisly contrast of the soldier’s death to the heroism supposed in the poem’s title is clear. ‘Jack’ is “blown to bits” by a shell or a mine: the plosive sound, ‘b’ echoing the sound of the explosive and its effect on the unfortunate soldier. The halting rhythm of the line, with pauses following each stressed word (“how”, “last”, “died”), lends a sense of inevitability to Jack’s end.

“And no-one seemed to care / Except that lonely woman with the white hair.”: The final couplet is explicit, objective and powerful. The illusion of the opening stanza is replaced two related scenes of devastation: the fragmented body of the dead soldier, Jack, and the tragic image of the “lonely woman with the white hair”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Hero’, like ‘They’ and ‘Glory of Women’ contrasts the ignorance and sometimes willful delusion of those at home with the actual soldiers who have experienced front-line warfare.]