Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11/11 Armistice Day 2008

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

- Walt Kelly

In earlier years, I've featured Kelly's words and one of his 11/11 Pogo strips. I've also previously highlighted some of Wilfred Owen's poetry. World War I remains one of the most horrific of any wars, and is the reason 11/11 (Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans' Day) is observed. I continue to wish it was studied more. Owen, who fought in WWI, is still probably my favorite war poet, but his friend, fellow soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon possessed a dark, biting wit. Their friendship has been depicted in several fictionalized accounts, including the award-winning novel Regeneration. Here's a selection of Sassoon's work.

The Effort
By Siegfried Sassoon

"The effect of our bombardment was terrific. One man told me he had
never seen so many dead before." --War Correspondent.
"HE'D never seen so many dead before."
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
"How peaceful are the dead."
Who put that silly gag in some one's head?

"He'd never seen so many dead before."
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn't count them any more...
The dead have done with pain:
They've choked; they can't come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat...
"How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don't count 'em; they're too many.
Who'll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?"

One of the common themes in WWI memoirs such as Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That is how terrible trench warfare is and how cloistered the public back home is from its dread realities. Sassoon focused a fair amount on this dynamic:

Editorial Impressions
By Siegfried Sassoon

He seemed so certain ‘all was going well’,
As he discussed the glorious time he’d had
While visiting the trenches.
‘One can tell
You’ve gathered big impressions!’ grinned the lad
Who’d been severely wounded in the back
In some wiped-out impossible Attack.
‘Impressions? Yes, most vivid! I am writing
A little book called Europe on the Rack,
Based on notes made while witnessing the fighting.
I hope I’ve caught the feeling of “the Line”,
And the amazing spirit of the troops.
By Jove, those flying-chaps of ours are fine!
I watched one daring beggar looping loops,
Soaring and diving like some bird of prey.
And through it all I felt that splendour shine
Which makes us win.’
The soldier sipped his wine.
‘Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way!

Even more acidly:

Suicide In The Trenches
By Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

In Good-Bye to All That, Graves relates the story of a soldier shot for going AWOL. The man hadn't been trying to desert, and was in fact set on fighting, but just couldn't take the waiting. Air bombings, especially with sirens affixed to plane wings, played havoc with troop nerves in the trenches. A faceless enemy could seemingly kill them at any time, with life and death a matter of random chance. Any possibility at direct retribution for a buddy's death was similarly unlikely against a faceless foe. Studies of PTSD and general troop morale show that anyone will break eventually if given no respite. And even if given some rest, or if one makes it all the way home, there's still the question of what awaits there:

Does It Matter?
By Siegfried Sassoon

Does it matter? - losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? - losing your sight?...
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter - those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you’re mad;
For they know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

After publicly protesting the war, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated for shell shock. He was fortunate to be treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, who practiced a more humane form of treatment than was often the case at the time. PTSD or shell shock was generally seen as a failure of nerve, as cowardice. (Mrs. Dalloway provides a memorable fictional depiction of this attitude.) The following poem and a Rivers paper (that makes for striking reading) share a title:

Repression of War Experience
By Siegfried Sassoon

Now light the candles; one; two; there’s a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame -
No, no, not that, - it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you’re as right as rain...
Why won’t it rain?...
I wish there’d be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they’re so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There’s one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees, -
Not people killed in battle, - they’re in France, -
But horrible shapes in shrouds - old men who died
Slow, natural deaths, - old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on!...
O yes, you would ... why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud, - quite soft ... they never cease -
Those whispering guns - O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop - I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

This piece is far less sardonic and more sincere than some of the earlier selections:

By Siegfried Sassoon

When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.

But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
and silence; and the faces of my friends.

This last selection may be the most appropriate for 11/11:

By Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet? ...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same - and War's a bloody game ...
Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz -
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench -
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"
Do you remember the hour of din before the attack -
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Anonymous said...

This is beautifully done. Thank you for putting this together.

Comrade Kevin said...

Thank you very much for including these. I covered WWI poetry in an English class when I was in college, but hadn't read these works in years and years.

WBS in SPb said...


Bittersweet reading two years on, and no doubt it shall also be the same twenty years from now.

Thank you so very much for broadening our horizons

... in such a superb fashion
... about such terrible things.

Amen ...