Wilfred Owen and the old lie that's still told
Next Friday, July 1st, marks 100 years since start of the Battle of the Somme, the World War I ...
For some time now I’ve been co-writing a book on First World War poetry; as an offshoot of this, I’ve developed a nose for books related to that war. I’m not talking now of those grim sections in second-hand bookshops dedicated to battle histories and dominated by Nazi insignia (here the two world wars melt into each other). Rather I haunt the lower book shelves of charity shops, looking for the tell-tale faded boardcover slim volume which denotes early twentieth-century poetry. I’ve discovered first editions of Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon this way, as well as those of lesser, and lesser-known poets – not always the same thing, but either way, paradoxically more thrilling than the big names. These books weigh lightly in the hand, and they are not valuable in monetary terms, but they are a powerful reminder of the importance of the printed poetic word in the aftermath of a war when young men were under constant threat of extinction.
Both Blunden and Sassoon survived the war; both also took part in the Battle of the Somme, a battle which has a particular resonance in our cultural memory. Many other poets were also involved in that seismic struggle (whose first engagement was on July 1st and its last on November 19th, 1916): Robert Graves, Philip Johnstone, David Jones, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, Max Plowman, Alan Seeger, and Arthur Graeme West.In spite of the slaughter of the Somme, only Seeger of these poets actually died in that attenuated battle. Graves, Johnstone, Jones and Plowman survived the war; Mackintosh and West died in later battles in 1917.And the Somme area was a site of continual conflict: Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen both fought over that ground. Owen was invalided out from there to Craiglockhart, which would prove as significant to his poetic development as his time at the Front.
The Somme in poetry is often denoted by place names, mostly of woods, which were sites of crucial, brutal action (Delville Wood, High Wood, Mametz Wood, Thiepval Wood), occasionally rivers (the Ancre, and of course the Somme itself), and villages (Beaumont Hamel, Beaucourt, Senlis). These names mark the poems like scars, and their significance can best be understood by looking at an Ordnance Survey map of modern France, showing the place names on roads traversed so often by modern tourists – all the more so in this centenary month of the start of the Battle of the Somme. When geographical names become historical battles, we lose that sense of their belonging to actual landscape features. But look at a modern map: there is Thiepval – there is Beaumont – there’s Mametz – and there running through them is the Ancre – all jostling with each other within two or three inches.
I had always assumed that Blunden’s poem ‘At Senlis Once’ was about the well-known city of Senlis north of Paris. But in his fine post-war memoir, Undertones of War (1928; Penguin Books, 1982), he notes that at the beginning of November 1916 he and his company were sent to rest at ‘Senlis, a village six or seven miles behind the line... We heard the church bell ring in Senlis, we bought beer and chocolate, and we admired with determination the girls who sold them; so great was the hour of relaxation, so kindly was the stone of the road and the straw of the barn.’
And there we see it on the map, a tiny place only just removed from the points of action. At this point Blunden and his men had been in front line or support trenches since the beginning of September, a full two months. The poem catches the mood of relief and release:
O how comely it was and how reviving,
When with clay and with death no longer striving
Down firm roads we came to houses
With women chattering and green grass thriving.
(Blunden, Poems 1914-30, Cobden-Sanderson, 1930, pp. 144-145)
Blunden’s slightly quaint diction (‘O how comely’) here speaks of the pleasure of contentment from an older world, but in Undertones one comes suddenly upon occasional passages which show in grisly detail the brutal suddenness of death at the Front. Blunden has been unfairly sidelined as a pastoral poet, but the pastoral is for him meaningful as an antidote to horror, as in ‘1916 Seen From 1921’ (Wordsworth, pp. 11-12). Here, after the war, he suffers, as many surviving combatants did, from the sense that life is meaningless. Even though he has survived, is safe and sound, that survival is ashes in the mouth because of the memory of those who died:
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Only the memory of moments of absorption in nature during past battles can give him any sense of hoping to connect with the present natural world (which currently seems dead to him):
There we would go, my friend of friends and I,
And snatch long moments from the grudging wars,
Whose dark made light intense to see them by.
The Battle of the Somme was the darkest of dark: we remember it in part for its saddest statistic, that more soldiers died in the first day of that battle than ever in one day of battle before. And then it went on, and on, stretching its wounded length along 141 days – and no more than seven miles of gained ground.
Alan Seeger (a Canadian citizen, fighting, bizarrely, as a member of the French Foreign Legion) was killed within a few days of the start of the Battle of the Somme. He is known for one poem, but that a powerful one, ‘Rendezvous’. The term ‘rendezvous’ and the poetic vocabulary call up Death as a lover:
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath –
The sensual intimacy of tone both reinforces and belies the underlying thrust of the poem – that in this battle, death is imminent, perhaps inescapable: the rendezvous will be made.
Seeger was trying in a romanticised way to find a poetic equivalent for the powerlessness of the individual against the extreme likelihood of death in the conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front, a likelihood multiplied in the circumstances of the Battle of the Somme where casualties were an inbuilt part of the strategy. Arthur Graeme West already had some idea of the ubiquitous threat of death when he came to the Somme as a newly trained officer. In ‘The Night Patrol', written in March 1916 when he was still an ordinary soldier, he sees:
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells
Shot fruitlessly – and everywhere the dead.
But West romanticises neither death nor the dead. Rather the dead bodies are seen coldly as useful geographical markers by which the night patrol can find their right way back.
West didn’t believe in the rightfulness of the war; even as he was training as an officer, he was in correspondence with Bertrand Russell, a dedicated pacifist who lost his Cambridge fellowship as a result of his conscientious objection to the war. Russell also influenced Sassoon, though in this case as a result of their sharing the same social (and ideological) set through Ottoline Morrell. This reminds us of the tremendous mix of origins and classes that went on in the First World War.
A particularly interesting figure in this mix is Philip Johnstone, the author of ‘High Wood’, a poem much anthologised because it looks forward to a time when High Wood would be a tourist site to be picked over by the curious voyeur – as indeed it and similar battlefield sites have become. Philip Johnstone was actually John Stanley Purvis; a Yorkshireman, he survived the war and went on to be a Canon of York Minster. Purvis seems to have been secretive about his identity as the author of this poem; he adopted a pseudonym when the poem was first published in The Nation in 1918. Websites referring to him are contradictory in their information, but regimental records of the Green Howards mention a J. S. Purvis who was invalided out during the final assault on High Wood in September 1916.The Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York records that he died in 1968 – just after the great revival and anthologising of First World War poetry. What did he think when he saw his poem in sixties anthologies? Brian Gardner’s seminal, if outdated, 1964 anthology, Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914-1918 (Methuen), places ‘High Wood’ as the Epilogue of the anthology, using its bitterly ironic, prescient retrospection to round off his collection – or perhaps to round on it:
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.
Tourism of the battlefields did in fact begin very early, stemming originally from relatives wanting to visit the graves of their loved ones, but developing gradually into the historical tourism we see today. But it’s hard to imagine what readers in 1918 would have made of these lines; the irony speaks much more volubly to us a hundred years later.
Later in July I’ll be making my own excursion to these sites of memory, with Wilfred Owen particularly in mind. I shall tread carefully, and report back.
*For readers wanting to explore the literature of the Battle of the Somme further, there is an excellent collection of prose testimony and poetry from thirty-nine participants in the battle (including poets mentioned above), The Fierce Light: The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916, edited by Anne Powell, Palladour Books, Aberporth, 1996. I expect I picked up my copy in a charity shop.