So, there we have it. Another year’s summer examination over. What did you think of the exam this year?

I’m so-so on it. I think it’s hard to deny that question 1a was excellent; a letter from Lt. Colonel Rowland Fielding to his wife expressing his affection for his trench comrades, and alienation from the folks at home. If you couldn’t answer this question and link it to your wider reading, you really had no right to be in the examination at all.

Question 1b, however, was much more tricky and debatable as a test offering.

If you studied the Stallworthy anthology, you were offered a two choices. The first question asked candidates, ‘How far would you agree that the poems by women in this selection present significantly different views from those written by men?’. This is a nice but problematic question, given that there are only two poems written by women in the entire selection of sixty-eight poems. If a candidate doesn’t know at least one of these poems, he or she is, to put it frankly, stuffed. If they do, the world is their oyster. It’s a massive shame, I think, that the examiners decided to examine a fundamental question about gendered perspectives on the war through what are undoubtedly peripheral poems in the selection. Better to test on Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ and allow the better candidates to reach out to ‘Subalterns’ and ‘Rouen’.

The second option in Question 1b was based on Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, asking students to contrast attitudes in the poem to those elsewhere in the selection. Now, in terms of commenting on form, structure and language, this is great selection. The eulogising of Gregory’s death, along Yeats’ attribution to Gregory a higher impulse than patriotism, makes this a good poem to compare to other poems that indulge in either. Yeats’ later ‘Reprisals’ can be referenced and contrasted. Moreover, in his editorial choices, Yeats also links directly to Owen and the whole question of the viability of war poetry. On the surface of things, this seems a cracking selection.

Yet I think there is a problem with this question too. Our group spent just under two weeks studying Yeats and the five poems in the selection; more than enough time, you might think, to get to grip with his poems. Yet the profoundly important Irish context makes these poems difficult and daunting for students already getting to grips with the massive historical challenge that is the European theatre of the First World War.

Difficult is fine, of course. Accessible is another. The problem with question 1b in this exam, I think, is its accessibility to A-level students studying First World War poetry through the Stallworthy anthology. When viewed in combination, the questions selected should have allowed all students to display their knowledge, at the high and low ends. And when viewed in combination, I think it is hard to argue that that Question 1b allowed students to do this.

Was this was a fair examination, then? I’m not sure. In some ways I think that this was a good exam that was unnecessarily obscure in at least one of its questions for section 1b. Personally I’m tired of the needless obscurity that examiners seem to habitually indulge in: but I’m not sure that this is a prime example of this habit since this exam began three years ago.

I’m going to throw this question out to others– to you, the students who sat it.

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!)

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.

Tick tock...

That’s right! Today is the 23rd of February, 2011. An auspicious day. Yet, we must leave. Let us climb aboard our time machine.

We hop on board the rickety machine, you and I.

Night follows day like the flapping of a black wing as we speed to the morning of the 23rd of May, 2011, three months from now.

There, we climb off the machine. It is a typical early summer’s day in London. From a black sky drops hail the size of golf balls, smashing violently all around us: we run towards the nearest building, and find ourselves outside a curious hall.

There are a strange people here. They seem a little like you– but different somehow. They are thin, and seem to lack sleep. Some have their eyes closed as they mumble to themselves. Words? Numbers? It is hard to tell. One male, tall, seemingly energetic, laughs nervously as he looks from his papers to his watch.

You suddenly halt. At the entrance to the hall, a door opens. You grab my arm. There!– at the front of the queue!– who is that person that looks– so much like– you?

It is you.

This is the moment before you sit your AS level English paper, on May 23rd, 2011.

Don’t Panic! Here’s where you can get AQA Past Papers and Markschemes to prepare for the times ahead.

[Once you’ve linked to the page, you’ll see a tab called ‘Key Materials’ underneath the four handsome Aryans that AQA have chosen to advertise their qualifications. Click on this and go down to ‘Past Question Papers and Markschemes’. Then select one of the three exams that have been held so far. Good luck!]

Hi there.

This blog is intended to help you in your study of the literature of the First World War. It’s a project of the staff and students of the English Department at Southfields Community College, London, UK: together we’re exploring the poetry of the Great War, 1914-18.

Using Jon Stallworthy’s ‘Oxford Book of War Poetry’ as our source text (pp. 160-225), this blog will provide notes for an ongoing discussion of 68 poems written by 36 different poets. The practical end point of all this will be the AQA AS level examination for our students here at Southfields: the notes and discussions herein will hopefully help us prepare and appreciate the literature of the First World War. If you’ve got the hard luck not to be an A-level student at Southfields, never mind: you’re welcome to use these resources, or better, enter the conversation!

Each poem’s subject is in some way related to the First World War, a conflict which in its scale and murderous technological reach definitively transformed the world. These poems are personal testaments to the terrible loss of life experienced in a wholly new kind of war; they are historical documents; some are great works of art; and in their own way, they point to a change in humanity of which we are the inheritors.

The notes are mine, and while useful are very far from perfect. Any mistakes of fact, scansion or interpretation, I take sole responsibility for. There will inevitably be errors of fact: should you drift by here and spot one, please point it out to me! Similarly there will be some errors of scansion– again, tell me.

As for errors of interpretation– well, this is where a discussion begins, isn’t it? If you have an opinion about a poem, an appreciative thought, or a different reading to the one you find jotted down here, please feel free to contribute to ‘Move Him Into the Sun’.

G. M. Griffiths

A final note: I have attempted to observe UK copyright law in reproducing the poetry on this site. Should any copyright holders find their property reproduced here, please inform me and I will take down the offending material.