what remains today

Serre Rd.

The Somme was not what I expected it to be, but then even I did not know what I expected. It’s a strange thing, visiting a place one has only ever read about in the context of bloodshed, in the context of numbers (men lost, ground gained, grave references) and the idea of family. A strange land, one that is buried in words and ideas and statements but not actuality, not until that summer week.

It was hot, the week we drove through France. The weather granted everything a semi-lucid quality. The heat was uncomfortable, the sun at times glaring but then softened by the trees. The stone benches under the trees were warm against the backs of my legs. The grass itched against my calves when I sat before my great uncle’s gravestone. I didn’t say a great deal when I was there – not that it felt wrong, but it’s what felt right for me. Remembrance is different for everyone. For me; it was sitting on the grass with the paper-thin petals of a poppy in my hand (picked from the side of the road as we drove endlessly) and being there. My nana preferred to talk; to me, to my uncle, to her uncle. My uncle preferred to draw – I still have his work from that week; a collection of scratchy pen drawings that are now pinned up next to my mirror. They are stark and lovely and painful all at once.

I was somewhat unprepared for the fact that, driving through the Somme, one passes memorials and cemeteries every several hundred meters or so. We drove past the memorial to Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle when we first arrived in France. I stared and stared until it was out of sight. We never went back; though I will do one day. The further we drove into France, the more we saw. Areas of land, a little back from the road; crosses and headstones, gates slightly open. We grew quieter and quieter as we drove – there was nothing to say as the enormity of it all swallowed us up. Seeing numbers is one thing, seeing the land and what remains is another.

…dew drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:…
S.Sassoon – The Dream

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MCMXIV – Philip Larkin

I tend to come across poems in occasionally vague ways – a line heard and committed to memory; a few words ringing a vague bell, prompting a frantic search through a poetry book I received the year the millennium dawned or an old dogeared copy of WW1 poetry. I’ve copied bits of poems onto napkins, backs of receipts and occasionally my own hand. Sometimes I come across poems through studying them, like many people – Owen, Sassoon, Brooke; names I am unlikely to ever forget and poems that will remain forever lodged into my mind. There are poems found through blogging, posts from other people that lead me to borrowing yet another poetry book from the library and falling (however briefly) in love with a new stanza of words, a new poet with their pen. Less frequently, I find poems through film. A roundabout way, somewhat, but film is where I first heard Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV.

It is a poem, briefly referenced and quoted by Scripps – a character in the Alan Bennett play The History Boys. I was never lucky enough to see it onstage, but I saw it on DVD; drawn to it when I saw the quote ‘history is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind…with a bucket.’

There are other moments in the film- naturally – that stuck with me. The reciting of Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy (Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge forever be) and the comment on remembrance – worthy of a post all its own. But, this post is for Philip Larkin’s poem. It is not one written during the war, but instead it was penned some time afterward; the gift of hindsight in his writing and perhaps a little romanticism. Still, it’s a poem that has lingered, certain lines more than others. It is not one I studied, though I might try to one day.

The first and last stanzas are the ones I find myself drawn to.

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

I am not sure why it’s those two stanzas that I find myself lingering upon, and not the lines ‘And the countryside not caring/the place names all glazed over’ for instance, from the third stanza. I think its the sense of before, the innocence which Larkin imbues his words with. As a reader, one knows what will come next, what will happen when the men have left their tidy gardens and gone away. One knows that there will never be such innocence again, a dull ache in recognising that that comes with the final line.

An August Bank Holiday Lark is also the name of a play I saw in the summer of 2014, somewhat appropriately. It had a similar feeling to Larkin’s poem itself, a slight melancholy – making it difficult to concentrate on the brightness and the laughter for the all encroaching knowledge of what was to come, sooner rather than later.

The entirety of MCMXIV by Philip Larkin can be found here.

The War the Officers Knew

JE RC*Please note: this post contains some spoilers for Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff

The original title of Journey’s End was originally set to be Waiting, or Suspense; but Journey’s End is what R.C. Sherriff eventually settled on. The play contains both things – the end of a journey and the suspense of waiting. Set during the run up to Operation Michael towards the end of the war, the tedium of waiting is palatable in this play. It drags. The men smoke. One of them drinks. They read from novels and talk about their wives and sweethearts. But most of all, they wait.

Normally, for a play to drag would be a bad thing. I saw it performed and found myself fidgeting slightly, casting a glance or two at my companions. It was a very quiet play when I saw it – terribly quiet – but for the rumble of guns, set up so that it felt as though they were going off around the audience. I flinched more than once, until I got used to it and the sound faded to a dull rumble in the background – until the final crescendo as the lights flickered out and the play ended. The slowness of the play echoes the experience of many soldiers – hours upon hours of waiting before the attack.

It’s a very human play, a play about waiting (though not to the extreme of Beckett’s). The men talk about meat cutlets and the lack of pepper for their dinner; they talk of their lives before the war. Some, like Raleigh who is the new boy in the trenches, are public schoolboys who all played ‘rugger’ together and thought it marvellous. 2nd lieutenant Trotter hates the war, the food and he counts down each hour he has in the trenches by drawing circles on a piece of paper and carefully colouring them in. It is one aspect of the painful passage of time in this play – watching a man colour circles in on a sheet of paper, methodically and carefully because there is little other way of marking the slow inexorable journey to the definitive end, both of the play and of the war. For us, it is the same ending, but for the characters onstage, it is not.

The relationships in this play are interesting ones – they need to be. The most interesting is that of Jimmy Raleigh and Captain Dennis Stanhope. It is referenced, by Raleigh himself, that the two knew each other before the war – they were at school together and Stanhope embarked on a courtship of Raleigh’s sister. Raleigh asked to be placed in Stanhope’s Company, he looked up to him at school with a sort of hero-worship that becomes more and more painfully evident as the play goes on, not least for the fact that Stanhope himself terms it as such.

Stanhope is first seen through the eyes of Raleigh and we register the shock in his response. The man who walks down the dug-out steps is not the same man that Raleigh left behind in cricketing whites. Instead, Stanhope is plainly exhausted, perilously close to shattering point and he reacts with irritation – not joy – when it becomes clear that his sweetheart’s brother specifically asked to be in his company. Stanhope is not the man Raleigh knew, and nor is he the man  whom Raleigh’s sister is in love with. Instead, he is a man who has been steadily ground down by the reality of warfare which has continued on for four years.

We see the dependency that Stanhope has developed on alcohol as the play goes on. He drinks more often than those around him and he drinks a good deal more quickly too. Osbourne – a man who was once a schoolmaster – puts a drunk Stanhope to bed and Hardy comments on Stanhope’s alcoholism at the start of the play. The only response to the accusation is that Stanhope is the best commander they’ve ever had. This is the first we hear of him – this is the first that we know – the Captain is an alcoholic, but he is wonderful at his job. It is interesting then that we form our first opinions on Stanhope not through his actions, but through what other characters say of him.

During the play, Raleigh writes a letter to his sister and Stanhope – terrified that the letter contains note of his rampant alcoholism – takes it from the boy to be censored. Instead, he finds the letter full of nothing but praise for him and his actions – there is no malice in the letter and it is not what he expects. The love that all the men – schoolmaster Osbourne, even Trotter the perennial complainer – have for Stanhope is abundant, despite his rudeness and we see it in their actions and the way they speak of him.

There is one character however, who does not share the same love for Stanhope and that is Hibbert. Stanhope views him as a ‘worm..trying to wriggle back home.’ In short, he sees Hibbert’s neuralgia as a ruse, a con – the actions of a man wanting only to be away from the fighting. To Stanhope, Hibbert does not care about his duty – and yet duty is the linchpin that is barely holding the Captain together. This is the cause for their explosive confrontation that comes halfway through the play.

It is a revealing moment for Stanhope; he lays himself bare to Hibbert, however briefly this may be. He threatens to shoot the other man; Hibbert has first made it clear he intends to desert and second, he has struck his commanding officer – but he does not. Instead, the conversation results in Stanhope admitting that he feels the way Hibbert does. That he wants to go up and over the top about as much as his subordinate does. That there have been moments when he felt he could:

‘just lie down on this bed and pretend I was paralysed or something – and couldn’t move and I’d just like there till I died or was dragged away.’

A rare moment in the play when Stanhope voices his innermost thoughts and feelings but as an audience, one gains not just an insight into Stanhope’s mind, but an insight into the cost of his duty. In acknowledging that he feels the same as Hibbert, he is also making it clear how much he must hide. There is no-one to whom Stanhope can speak to – if he shows that he does not want to fight, then his men would more than likely follow suit. A commanding officer was a source of morale, of encouragement, courage and bravery. If they could not be that, then they were not doing their jobs. It is suggested that the rate of shell shock in officers was much higher than the rate of psychological stress on other ranks. Stanhope cannot speak to his men, he cannot write letters home which tell the truth. Instead, he is reduced to finding solace in a whiskey bottle.

I loved this play when I studied it, and I still love it today. For me, it is a melancholy portrait of a young Captain – but it is not sugarcoated. It shows a little of what happened to some men during the First World War – and it was not pretty. What happened young men – just out of school-  who would more than likely have become part of the landed classes of England, had they lived, had they survived and had they remained unbroken by the extraordinary pressure of war. Instead, they took command of groups of men, some who were older than they, and they had to look after them, to lead them and to never, ever let slip what they truly felt about the situation they were in.

For more information about the Captains experience of the First World War, I heartily recommend Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel