Archive for World War 1

Barddoniaeth ar gyfer Dydd Gŵyl Dewi

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by telescoper

Well, today is St David’s Day so let me first offer a hearty “Dydd Gwŷl Dewi Sant hapus i chi gyd” (happy St David’s Day to you all).

Over the years, I seem to have established a tradition of posting a bit of poetry to mark this special day for Wales and the Welsh and I was looking for a piece of verse to put up this time round, when I came across a poem that seems very appropriate for a number of reasons. It was written in Welsh by Hedd Wyn (born Ellis Humphrey Evans) who lived from 1887 to 1917; Hedd Wyn was his bardic name and it translates (roughly) as “pure peace”.

Hedd Wyn was a non-conformist Christian and a pacifist who was conscripted into the British Army to serve in World War 1. He was posted to Flanders and was killed in action on the first day of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. He was hit in the stomach by a shell and died later of his wounds. The battle stumbled on for months of horrific slaughter as the planned Allied offensive foundered in the mud of Passchendaele and ended, as had the Battle of the Somme a year earlier, in a bloody stalemate.

A few weeks before his death, Hedd Wyn wrote a poem called Yr Arwr (‘The Hero’) which was submitted for the prestigious Bard’s Chair at that year’s National Eisteddfod. It was announced on 6th September 1917 that  he  had won the prize, posthumously. The bard not being able to sit in the the chair, it was draped in black cloth. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was present at the ceremony.

The poem Yr Arwr is a very long work, running to 13 pages of manuscript, which is not practicable to post here, but here’s another poem by Hedd Wyn to mark the centenary of his death. This is called Rhyfel (‘War’). I only have a few words of Welsh, but because of the occasion,  it seems appropriate to post this in its original language. You can find English translations here and on the Wikipedia page here. Translating poetry is always very difficult, but the sense of the poem is of a world in chaos that has been abandoned by God.

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

The Flowers in the Field: The Somme Remembered

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on July 1, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve posted this at 7.20am on 1st July 2016. Precisely one hundred years ago, following a heavy artillery bombardment that had been going on for a week, an enormous mine was exploded  under a fortified position at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel on the River Somme in France. Here is footage of the actual explosion:

Ten minutes later, the first French and British troops went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

Here is an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago about this battle and its aftermath.

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Twelve 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 light comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror set to unsettling atonal music.

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. It had also been believed that the artillery shells would have cut the barbed wire protecting German positions. It didn’t. British and French troops who got entangled were sitting ducks. Carnage ensued.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the horrific 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.

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I decided to end this piece with the following video featuring music by George Butterworth (A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by the poetry of A.E. Housman, and one of the few surviving complete works of this composer). Images of present-day Shropshire are interspersed with photographs taken on the Somme in 1916. I chose this because George Butterworth too lost his life in the Battle of the Somme (on 5th August 1916). Lest we forget.

The Day Sussex Died

Posted in History with tags , , , on June 30, 2016 by telescoper

In advance of tomorrow’s sombre commemorations of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, I thought I’d write a short preliminary piece about a related centenary to be marked today, 30th June 2016.

On this day in 1916 there took place the Battle of the Boar’s Head, the name given to a German salient near Richebourg-l’Avoué in the Pas de Calais region. This battle is remembered locally here in Brighton as The Day Sussex Died. The following brief account is based on the wikipedia article.

The attack on the Boar’s Head was launched on 30 June 1916, as an attempt to divert German attention from the Battle of the Somme which was to begin on the following day, 1 July. The attack was conducted by the 11th, 12th and 13th (Southdowns) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, part of the 116th Southdowns Brigade of the 39th Division.

A preliminary bombardment and wire-cutting by the artillery commenced on the afternoon of 29 June and was reported to be very effective. The final bombardment commenced shortly before 3:00 a.m. and the 12th and 13th battalions went over the top (most for the first time) shortly afterwards, the 11th Battalion providing carrying parties. The guns lifted their fire off the German front trench and put down an intense barrage in support. The infantry reached the German trenches, bombing and bayoneting their way into the German front line trench and held it for about four hours.

The second trench was captured and held for only half an hour, during which several counter-attacks were repulsed and then the raiders withdrew, because of a shortage of ammunition and mounting casualties. The German support position was not reached by the infantry, because the German defensive tactics included shelling trenches where the British had gained a foothold.

In fewer than five hours the three Southdowns Battalions of the Royal Sussex lost 17 officers and 349 men killed, including 12 sets of brothers, three from one family. A further 1,000 men were wounded or taken prisoner.

The corps commander looked upon the attack as a raid and considered it to be successful.

Here is a photograph of A Company of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, taken shortly before the battle; by its end, over 80% of these men were dead.

BoarsHead

The losses at the Boar’s Head were shortly to be dwarfed by the horrendous scale of the slaughter on the Somme, but their impact  on families and indeed whole villages in rural Sussex was devastating.  Those who lost their lives in armed conflict should never been forgotten, nor should their sacrifices be appropriated for political ends.

Lest we forget.

 

JULY 1914, by Anna Akhmatova

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , on August 5, 2014 by telescoper

I heard a great poem on Radio 3 last night. It was part of a programme that preceded a late night promenade concert during which, at 10pm, people across the country were invited to turn their lights out and place a candle in their window as an act of remembrance. From what I could see, not many in my street bothered, but I did…

LightsOut

 

The poem I heard was written by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova on the eve of her country’s entry into World War 1. It’s actually just the first part of a poem called JULY 1914 (the capitalization is deliberate). It perfectly captures that sense of foreboding she felt as the clouds gathered, and the hot weather we’ve been having made it all the more effective:

It smells of burning. For four weeks
The dry peat bog has been burning.
The birds have not even sung today,
And the aspen has stopped quaking.

The sun has become God’s displeasure,
Rain has not sprinkled the fields since Easter.
A one-legged stranger came along
And all alone in the courtyard he said:

“Fearful times are drawing near. Soon
Fresh graves will be everywhere.
There will be famine, earthquakes, widespread death,
And the eclipse of the sun and the moon.

But the enemy will not divide
Our land at will, for himself;
The Mother of God will spread her white mantle
Over this enormous grief.”

by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).

 

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”…

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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.