Archive for Siegfried Sassoon

They called it Passchendaele

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on July 31, 2017 by telescoper

Pass

One hundred years ago today, on 31st July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres began. The battle, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, staggered on until November with hundreds of thousands of troops killed. The Allied assault on Ypres was ultimately intended to break through the German lines and capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast. That objective was not reached, and territorial gains were limited to just a few miles at terrible cost in suffering and death.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minster at the time, wrote in his memoirs:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …

Others have argued that the Battle of Passchendaele had the important strategic role of taking pressure of the French army further South, which was so close to breaking point that mutinies were breaking out. Although the casualties on both sides were unsustainable, the German High Command knew that American reinforcements would soon enter the fray, and that if they were to win the War it would have to be with a knockout blow the following year. The German offensive of 1918 made substantial inroads through the Allied lines, even threatening Paris, until it was eventually halted and turned into a full-scale retreat.

Whatever the military outcome of the Battle, there is no question about the scale of the suffering of the troops (many of whom, at this stage of the War, were conscripts). The area in which the action took place was mainly low-lying, with a water table just a couple of feet below the surface. The myriad of small streams ditches, and drainage channels that had been developed over centuries to turn it into farmland, were destroyed by heavy shelling so the soldiers had to contend with heavy mud, often strewn with body parts and deep enough to drown in, as described by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Whenever I read about the terrible events of past wars, the important thing (to me) is not strategy or objectives but the suffering  that had to be endured by ordinary soldiers. It’s important to remember things like Passchendaele to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in a time of relative peace. The way the world is heading, however, I worry that may soon be coming to an end. Lest we forget? Far too many people have already forgotten.

P.S. Among those killed in action on the first day of Passchendaele was Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, whom I wrote about here.

P.P.S. The troops shown in the picture above are in fact Australian gunners: the picture was taken in October 1917.

 

 

Aftermath, by Siegfried Sassoon

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on November 8, 2015 by telescoper

I think it is appropriate to post this poem by Siegfried Sassoon this Remembrance Sunday. I think it was composed sometime in 1919 and it appears in a collection published in 1920 with the same title as the poem. I think its message is clear, but it is also notable for its unusual metrical structure; it’s basically iambic but each line ends with a succession of three stressed syllables that causes the iambic rhythm to stumble. It’s a device used in classical Greek and Roman poetry to emphasize pain or discomfort on the one hand or struggle and determination on the other. Here it seems to convey both.

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 that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
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.

by Siegfried Sassoon (1896-1967)

The Statistics of the “Great War”

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by telescoper

Since today, 4th August 2014, is the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First War I thought I’d repost an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago which says very clear what I feel about the War that some people insist on calling “Great”…

–0–

Ten summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror.

When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.

On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote a great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine or Gaza as Flanders (1917).

Last night I listened to a broadcast of the Mozart Requiem on BBC Radio 3. Mozart  left this piece unfinished at his death. The performance was preceded by an interesting discussion about the subsequent completion by his student, Süssmayr, and the various alternatives including the one by Robert Levin we heard last night. Of course nobody will know exactly how Mozart intended this work to be completed because Mozart died before he was able to finish it. We’ll never know what the millions that died before their time during World War 1 would have achieved either. Among the lists of the dead and maimed  were great poets, artists, musicians, scientists and engineers but we’ll never know what they might have created because death had the last word.

I thought I’d end with a poem by, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

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;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

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 good-byes.
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.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.

 

 

To the Warmongers

Posted in History, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , on November 8, 2010 by telescoper

As we approach Remembrance Sunday (which this year lies on 14th November) I find myself once again wearing a poppy on my coat lapel, and having once again to explain this to those I meet in the department and elsewhere who don’t approve. I’ve already said everything I think I need to on this in posts last year and the year before, so I won’t repeat myself at length here.

I am aware (and acutely sensitive to) the danger that the wearing of a poppy might be mistaken for support for militarism and that many of our politicians would like to manipulate the meaning of this symbol in precisely that way for their own ends. Nevertheless, I will wear one and will observe the two minutes’ silence on Thursday too. Why? Lest we forget, that’s why…

But instead of debating this again, I will  post the following poem and letter, both of which were written by Siegfried Sassoon.

The poem is called the To the Warmongers:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss.
Young faces bleared with blood,
Sucked down into the mud,
You shall hear things like this,
Till the tormented slain
Crawl round and once again,
With limbs that twist awry
Moan out their brutish pain,
As for the fighters pass them by.
For you our battles shine
With triumph half-divine;
And the glory of the dead
Kindles in each proud eye.
But a curse is on my head,
That shall not be unsaid,
And the wounds in my heart are red,
For I have watched them die.

The astonishing letter below was written by Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917, and was subsequently read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon narrowly escaped court martial for treason.

It’s worth noting the last two paragraphs:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The tragedy is that these words could equally well have been written about Afghanistan 2010 rather than France or Belgium 1917. The sight of Tony Blair wearing a poppy at the Cenotaph is one that filled me with nausea, but his hypocrisy makes it more, not less, important to hang on to the true meaning. Lest we forget. Nowadays, though, I don’t really “wear my poppy with pride”, but with something rather closer to shame.


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