Category Archives: WW1

Anything to do with WW1

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen (1917)

It is a pity that this poem of Owen’s has become such a cliché at this time year, but I felt it worth posting as I see that it is almost exactly ninety years since it was written. How sad that it seems more appropriate than ever.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

You can find more on this poem in this Wikipedia article and some general information about Owen here. See also, this post: Dulce et Decorum est?

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One man’s journey: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2005)

I read this award-winning book last year, but didn’t review it at the time, which was a mistake; it’s a very powerful, lyrically written novel. For those of us who are not Irish, its resonance is diminished somewhat, but I was privileged the other day to hear Barry talk about the book in person while I was in Dublin, and I gained some insight into what it means to Irish people. It is not without controversy, as I heard.

It is the story of Willie Dunne, a young Irish lad from Dublin who volunteers in 1914 and what happens to him during the war. He is in many ways atypical, in that despite being a Catholic, his father is a police inspector, at a time when virtually all those in authority were Protestants. Being Irish, Willie has not only the disassociation that existed between those fighting and those left at home, to deal with, he also has the events of Easter 1916, to cope with. In his case, more so than many, as Barry places him in Dublin at the time.

Unlike other combatant nations in the Great War, Ireland had until recently virtually forgotten those Irishmen who took part as members of the British army, subsequent events leading to them being regarded as traitors, rather than the heroic upholders of civilisation that Great War participants were viewed as in Britain and in the Commonwealth.

By having Willie take part in the suppression of the Easter Uprising, Barry tackles this attitude head on. Willie is seen as increasingly conflicted and alienated as the novel progresses. The presentation of trench life is very well done, covering both the boredom and the terror – Willie pisses himself before every attack, and suffers from the shakes.

At the time that I read it, I hated the way the novel ended – I felt it was clichéd and unoriginal. Barry answered my unspoken question as to why he ended it in the way he did, by describing the play featuring Willie’s father, which he wrote in the early 90s. The seeds of this novel’s conclusion were sown in that play.

You can read an interview with Barry or check out The Observer review.

Dulce et decorum est?

I like to quote something on Remembrance Day, but not the triteness of MacRae, which seems almost jaunty.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

And sadly Owen and Sassoon are overdone on this day, although I have used them in the past on other blogs. Today I was looking for a poem that summed up my thoughts at the moment; that the dead are dead, that they didn’t die for us, a near or remote posterity; they died for themselves, for their families, or for nothing, dying like most people in a similar situation, thinking it couldn’t happen to them.

And I remember those who survived; people like my grandfather who really got off very lightly, and yet who only ever talked about his experiences briefly and then towards the end of his life. Others were not so lucky, and never escaped from the nightmare, whether through physical or mental mutilation.

Here’s a poem by Charles Hamilton Sorely (1895-1915)

When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Not a poem about remembrance per se, but I think it touches on what I have said above; don’t praise the heroic sacrifice of the dead – what do they care? But it also acknowledges that the survivors will remember, even in dreams.

If I should die: A Foreign Field, by Ben MacIntyre (2002)

This is another book I would have been unlikely to have read unless I had been given it. Once again, it is more narrative non-fiction that history per se. It tells the story of four soldiers, members of the original BEF who were trapped behind enemy lines in 1914 during the retreat from Mons. In microcosm it tells the tale of the many men in similar positions although none appear to have suffered quite such an extraordinary fate.

Like many, they were sheltered by French villagers, only in their case was their fate stranger. Many of these soldiers did not last long – the villagers, believing the threats of the occupying Germans (often with good reason) handed them over, or the soldiers themselves surrendered. But not our four. They survived until May 1916 when they were eventually betrayed and shot as spies. This isn’t giving away anything – it’s on the blurb on the cover of the book.

What I found with this book, even more than with the Janet Morgan I reviewed recently, is that it reads almost like a novel. While these soldiers were real people, they are treated like characters in a plot, and the narrative as if it were a tragedy complete with hero and fatal flaw. The only problem I have with this is that it is being presented in some objective sense as ‘true’ when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. It’s very readable, and very sad, but I’m not sure that it’s history.

I know that some of you who read this blog are either historians or have an interest in history, and I would welcome your views on this type of writing.

Soldiering on: Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards (1933)

Most memoirs of the Great War were written by officers, and there are numerous volumes with titles along the lines of A Subaltern at Ypres. This is not to denigrate the experience of these men, but they formed a minority of those who participated. By comparison the number of memoirs written by the majority, the other ranks, is tiny. This book is one of them.

Richards served in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, and although a miner, had originally served with the battalion in India (hence his other book, Old Soldier Sahib) before spending some years as a reservist. Called up at the start of the war, he served with the battalion all the way through to the end, one of the very few to come through without a scratch.

The 2nd Royal Welch are well served in a literary sense, as two of its more famous members are Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, and it was also the subject of the detailed battalion history, The War the Infantry Knew written by Capt JC Dunn. I am currently struggling my way through this and have been for some months. It is fascinating being able to compare the different experiences of men who served with the same unit and their differing perceptions of what happened. Richards started off a private, and largely through choice we are told, ended the war that way. He says he had no desire for the responsibility NCO rank would have brought, but reports that others jumped from the rank of private sometimes straight to sergeant depending on how badly they were needed.

It’s a very chatty book, and reading it I got the impression that Richards recorded his experiences as if recounting them to a group of mates down the pub. He was wise to do so rather than attempt a more literary style, as that would have been forced and come over as less genuine, although I understand that Graves gave him some help with the editing.

An annotated version providing maps (which I always find helpful) and some more biographical detail, edited by John Krijnen and David Langley is also available(scroll down).

Similar, but written in a very different style is With a Machine Gun to Cambrai by George Coppard, a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Somme

Sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the battle of the Somme took place on 1st July 1916, and that was it. But of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a battle in the traditional sense of a great clashing of armies lasting at most several days, but a five month long struggle that finally petered out in the November of the coldest winter for forty years with the capture of Beaumont Hamel, one of the objectives of the first day.

It’s a battle that has drifted inexorably out of living memory, with none of its survivors still living, but we are lucky to have numerous first hand accounts, written, audio and filmed, from contemporaneous diaries to accounts published/filmed in the last few years. Attitudes towards it as an event have varied over the years, Dan Todman has an interesting article on the BBC History site here.

When it comes to choosing a book to start off with we are spoilt for choice; do we choose Martin Middlebrook’s 1971 classic The First Day onthe Somme, or the indefatigueable Lyn MacDonald’s Somme? Or do we go for something more recent, that doesn’t focus quite so much on day one, almost forgetting the following five months? If we choose to do the latter, then Peter Hart’s 2005 book The Somme, with its meticulous analysis is well worth a look. Starting with the political background to the battle – why it took place where and when it did in the form it did, to how events transpired over the ensuing months. For the reader not familiar with the landscape there are excellent maps and a strong emphasis on first hand accounts. It’s a massive book – the new paperback edition is 626 pages, so it’s not a quick read, but Hart’s text is nevertheless very readable.

A much more informed review than I am capable of is available from The Long Long Trail, here.

Some links from the BBC
The Somme: it’s place in British history.
Rethinking the Somme

I spy: Secrets of the Rue St Roche, Janet Morgan (2004)

I don’t know that this is necessarily a book that I would have bought, but I was given it as a present, and it proved an extremely interesting read. We don’t tend to think of spies and the Great War as going together, they are something that belong far more to WW2 in the popular imagination. And yet the British security services, MI5 and MI6 had their origins during the Great War. In this book, Janet Morgan documents an intelligence operation based in Paris during the latter part of the Great War, geared towards gaining advance knowledge of German troop movements, and thus of any potential planned advances.

The operation began with the serendipitous meeting of a middle aged Luxemburger with the head of the Paris operation in the spring of 1917. This lady lived near the massive rail junction in Luxemburg city, and the intelligence officer realised that if they could find a way for the information to get out of occupied Luxemburg, they would have vital intelligence that could help them win the war. It certainly stopped them losing it. After many false starts the operation finally got going in early 1918, just before the German March offensive.

It’s not so much a history, as I suppose, narrative non-fiction. It’s written as a story, which seems somehow less authoritative. Or perhaps I’m just used to my history in dull, dusty tomes. I enjoyed the insight into a largely forgotten area of the war, and it was well written, so I can’t complain on that front.