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Module Six

Question 1b

Extract B: the final scene from the final episode of Blackadder goes forth

Extract C: from The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, scene in hospital with young man whose face has been disfigured, declaring "Shotvarfet" to the bewilderment of his visiting parents and fiancée.

Extract D: There Will Come Soft Rains by Sara Teasdale

By comparing Extracts B, C and D, and by referring to your wider reading, examine how typical in both style and treatment of subject matter these writings are of literature from or about the First World War.
You should consider:
- language, form and structure
- the writers' thoughts and feelings about war and contemporary society
- the influence of the time of composition
- the gender of the writers.

The Blackadder extract is a very modern piece from the comedy TV series, but in this final scene, the comedy quickly breaks down as it is impossible to make any but the blackest humour work in such a situation. The attitude to the Great War had, by the time of its writing, been shaped by decades of reaction: Oh, What a Lovely War has been a particularly influential piece in shaping attitudes towards the authorities who prosecuted and led the war, and there is also a long-held certainty that the first World War was essentially pointless, an entirely wasteful and useless sacrifice of a generation—a view which historian Brian Bond deplores, pointing out the political necessities of the time, and the fact that the "donkeys" of generals were able in 1918 to achieve remarkable victories, though they were the same generals who had commanded in the earlier years.

So the Blackadder extract is very much antagonistic to the whole idea of the Great War, and is of course written for modern sensibilities about comedy, including a good deal of overt sarcasm. But it contains many points which reflect different attitudes from the war itself.

George suggests tentatively that this is 'brave, splendid and noble'. In the modern context this is seen as absurd, but at the time it was not. By the end of the war a great many minds had been changed, but early in (in particular) the idea was indeed seen as splendid. The poet Julian Grenfell positively rejoiced in the opportunity, describing was as 'a picnic, without the objectlessness of a picnic'. He adored war—but he was a professional soldier who specialised in killing German snipers, so the business of killing obviously suited his nature. His poetry rejoiced in war, and was popular. There was also Rex Freston, who wrote:

"Oh happy to have lived these epic days."

He managed to believe in war as a splendid thing, with opportunities for chivalry and great deeds. Like Grenfell, he was killed in 1915. There were also many civilian exhortations to war, frequently stressing the splendour and gallantry of soldiers, and it was certainly seen as a patriotic duty to be willing to die for one's country. Rupert Brooke seemed to discount the loss of life:

"Naught broken save this body, lost but breath."

as though certain of a future life: perhaps this, too, has been lost in more modern times, when the afterlife promised by Christian faith is no longer a certain and accepted thing for the majority in Britain.

George himself admits that the 'brave, splendid and noble' ideal does not apply at all, when he says that he is scared. This seems to be applying modern honesty in a way which was seldom true at the time. Certainly, the men were afraid, but it seems to have been an unspoken pact that one never admitted it. In Journey's End, the captain has to tell his trembling, terrified subordinate that everyone is afraid, but that it does not matter and they have to go on. Occasionally there is a representation—in Susan Hill's Strange Meeting or in Sassoon's semi-fictional Memoirs—of a man who is overcome with terror. Hill's book has an episode in which David must talk a terrified man out of a cellar, for if he refuses to fight he will be shot anyway,. In one of the many diary entries anthologised by Lyn MacDonald, a private soldier notes that you can either attack and be shot by the enemy, or refuse and be shot by your own side—but if you go towards the enemy you do at least have the chance to fight back.

Darling is obviously a caricature of the old-fashioned English gentleman—but he, like so many in the Great War, keeps a diary. There is a fantastic amount of such material available: Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Richard Aldington, kept diaries which formed the basis for their post-war memoirs. J C Dunn, who was apparently incensed at the view of the war represented by Sassoon and Graves (both serving officers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, to which Dunn was attached as a doctor), brought out his own collection of The War the Infantry Knew, again relying heavily on the diaries of many surviving (and deceased) soldiers.

George's line "Wouldn't want to face a machine gun without this" (his stick) is a clever distillation of the futility of what the British soldiers were required to do at the Somme and (in this case) Passchendaele: a German soldier noted with astonishment that the British walked towards their lines, presenting ludicrously easy targets for the German machine guns, and were accordingly slaughtered. How far attitudes have changed since Tennyson celebrated the (equally wooden-headed) Charge of the Light Brigade. But while Tennyson was able to see it as heroic and magnificent to charge into the mouth of hell, modern sensibilities see it as deeply stupid. Yet men did it. The film Gallipoli has a telling scene of Australian soldiers preparing to leave their trench—each man scribbles a frantic last letter, kisses his good luck charm or his sweetheart's picture, and then goes out with his rifle and bayonet to walk into the fire.

The brief moment in the Blackadder scene in which the guns stop and the soldiers wonder if the war is over—is most probably written to increase the tension of the viewer, rather than as a representation of how soldiers would have felt. Naturally the soldiers in the trenches knew what it meant when their own artillery's barrage fell silent, just as the enemy did. Blackadder says that 'not even our generals are mad enough to shell their own men' (but in fact, in a Jerry Pournelle novel the point is made that troops must be prepared to take casualties from their own artillery, in order to increase the effectiveness of an attack). This reflects the prevailing attitude towards the generals who conducted the Great War, an attitude partly shaped by the immensity of the losses suffered, and partly also by the writings of some—many—of the lowly combatants.

Siegfried Sassoon was particularly bitter towards the staff officers. In his Memoirs he admitted a certain bias against them, and advised Staff officers to write their own books to redress the balance! In his poem The General he has a jovial fellow meeting some soldiers who are about to go into battle:

"But he did for them both with his plan of attack."

Edward Tennant's poem A Bas La Gloire is another bitter reflection on the immunity of staff officers and the undeserved rewards they reap, while Charles Sorley wonders, in his diary, whether the generals who visit the trenches with half a dozen pink-faced ADCs know what fools they are thought by the men they are inspecting. Sassoon, again, says:

If I were fierce, and bald..."

and goes on to present the jolly, indifferent—indeed, callous—life of a staff officer:

"And when the war is done and youth stone dead
I'd toddle off back home and die—in bed."

In his famous Declaration, Sassoon did not condemn so much the generals as the politicians who, he felt, were keeping the war going unnecessarily, and prolonging the suffering of the soldiers.

For the Blackadder troops, as for the real soldiers in the trenches, there was no alternative but to go over the top in obedience to their orders. Blackadder notes sourly "Who would have noticed another madman round here?" There is an echo here of Heller's Catch-22, not of course written about the first World War, but which makes the point that war itself is insane and the only sanity lies in wishing to be out of it. War certainly inflicted insanity on many of its combatants, but there was also the "Battalion spirit" which drew Sassoon back to the Front even though he could have accepted a safe place elsewhere.

Extract C is from Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which does not attempt to provide a comic 'take' on such a dreadful subject. In this scene, Rivers (the doctor who treated Sassoon, among others, at Craiglockhart) witnesses the death of a horribly wounded patient, whose last breath cries out that "It's not worth it."

The Major, Hallet's father, is typical of the older generation who are unable to understand. He makes excuses for his son, and insists that the sacrifice was worth-while. He is like Hilliard's family in Strange Meeting, completely unable to empathise or comprehend the situation in the trenches, or the aged Major whom Sassoon's alter ego Sherston has to visit. There was much resentment of such incomprehending non-combatants—Sassoon and Graves both express it, as does Billy Prior in The Eye in the Door, who feels almost physically sickened at times by the presence of civilians.

But there is also the psychological necessity for the huge sacrifice of young men to be worth-while, and quite a lot of the early poetry of the war expresses this. Not all non-combatants failed to appreciate the level of sacrifice. Vera Brittain, in Testament of Youth, bewails the loss of so many of the best and brightest, leaving only the second rate—and after the war became very fervently anti-war. Others, such as Eva Dobell, wrote of what they saw—Dobell from the Night Nurse perspective glimpsed and grieved for the terrible dreams of wounded men.

The other patients in Hallet's ward join his protest, "a wordless murmur from damaged brains and drooping mouths". Here is a vivid picture of shell-shocked men, akin to Owen's line

"with jaws that slob their relish"

presenting a horrible image of what the shock of war does to soldiers' minds. Owen himself features in this trilogy, a patient at Craiglockhart suffering from neurasthenia.

Hallet's mother represents, in a way, the more intimate and personal grief expressed by so many women in the war—there can hardly have been a family left in England without a man to mourn, and there are many intense expressions of personal grief in the poetry of women, from Eleanor Farjeon's discreetly understated and poignant

"There are three letters that you will not get"

to Vera Brittain's hope that one day, the sun will shine again, in her poem expressing the loss of her fiancé Roland Leighton. Barbara Wootton wrote rather scathingly of Vera Brittain, who, she felt, seemed to assume that she alone was experiencing the grief of loss and the tense worry for her loved ones at the front, whereas in fact every VAD, every woman, underwent the same.

Hallet's fiancée, though, is relieved by his death—an understandable reaction given his dreadful disfigurement, but shameful too. Owen and Sassoon both have much to say on the subject of disabled men returning home to a most uncertain welcome. Sassoon's poem Does it matter? is bitterly ironic about the people who will "always be kind", and presents a very sad picture of a neglected and patronised future for those who lost limbs, sight or mind in the war.

It is interesting that Pat Barker does present a view of civilians in her books—very often they are quite absent from the works written by men during or not many years after the war. For the men, it seems to have been a task so overwhelming that they rarely had time to spare for the misery of civilians who waited for them. More often than not, those who are mentioned do not come off very well:

"You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place,"

says Sassoon, addressing women in general—but although the attitude he presents undoubtedly existed, he does not acknowledge the very real suffering of those at home, or the anger some of them felt at what was done in their name. Helen Hamilton's excellent angry poem Jingo Woman addresses the appalling behaviour of those who handed out white feathers:

"You make all women look such duffers"

,and Helen Zanna Smith, at that time an ambulance driver, writes a fierce indictment addressed to "Mother and Mrs Evans-Mawnington" on the same theme. Some women also deplored "the shibboleth of sex" which decreed helplessness for them while condemning men to battle.

Pat Barker also addresses the more active part women played: Billy Prior's fiancée is a munitions worker, running risks of her own in the war effort.

The 'Shorvarfet', that indistinct cry of protest, definitely fits the modern sensibility which has been shaped by the years between us and the Great War. It does not seem to have been a sentiment so widely expressed at the time—in the main, writers kept to a more personal level. Erich Maria Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, lamented the loss of his generation, even those who survived the war, because they were rootless and had no life to return to and no hope, but the more explicitly political cry of 'Shotvarfet' is more modern in tone.

Sara Teasdale's poem approaches war from quite a different route, saying that nature will reassert itself after the ravages of war. This was a theme that appeared in a great deal of war poetry—the song of a lark or blackbird in the lull of shellfire, images of flowers and grass, occur again and again. Edmund Blunden was particularly a poet who appreciated the beauties of the French countryside and deplored its destruction; Edward Thomas' poetry was essentially written before he went to fight, but again contrasts Nature with the destruction wrought upon it. Sebastian Faulks' book is even entitled Birdsong, presumably in homage to the many accounts of how birds lifted the hearts of the soldiers. And it is the sight of a cherry tree in blossom that inspires Paul's fellow-soldier (in All Quiet on the Western Front) to desert—it arouses such a desire for his home. Society in England before the war was essentially rural, and so many of the men in the trenches would have lived in the country and had an appreciation for and recognition of the natural things—it is harder to imagine present-day soldiers knowing the difference between a thrush's song and that of a lark.

Teasdale's approach to Nature is quite the opposite of Rupert Brooke's—he effectively subordinates the natural world to the concept of England in his poem The Soldier, where the Englishness of the fallen determines that piece of ground for ever. Teasdale emphasises instead that human folly is transient, and in the end the world will go on just as it did before. She makes the point of the futility and uselessness of war by demonstrating how little it matters to the world what these humans do. In fact, there is a strong suggestion that the world would be better off without humanity—leading to the reflection that what humans do is so utterly dreadful, by comparison with these 'soft rains' and 'wild-plum trees in tremulous white'.

None of these extracts was written by one of the soldier poets who actually participated in the war: their writings were in general more angry and personalised. Owen's poems are very intimate in general, presenting a picture of war's horrors by showing what it does to individuals; Sassoon's are more general in scope, but again concentrate fiercely on particular points. Perhaps it is only from the perspectives of time and distance that writers can achieve a broader view.


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