While I am not writing about the 1916 Battle of the Somme, one of the fiercest battles of the war, I can’t help bumping up against material about it, and, truly, about a good deal that does not have to do with The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel which is the subject of the book. As you have seen already, the blogs travel into elements of the war and warfare that are not part of battles. HOWEVER, this is the one hundredth anniversary of the filming of the 1916 documentary, The Battle of the Somme. It is an amazing feat of filmmaking. This is considered the most important documentary of the war. At the Imperial War Museum in London the 75 minute film is shown almost constantly. It has its own screen and seating area. I watched it when I was there last year. This year I will buy a copy. There is another contemporary documentary about the documentary’s making. I will buy that one, too. Soon after we get home in August we will have a showing of the two at our house. They won’t be on the same evening. Look forward. I see that Amazon has a 47 minute version that can be downloaded. Those of you with Prime can see it for free.
Last week I wrote about our visit to the canal at Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors where the poet Wilfred Owen was killed. That same afternoon the Bird brothers took us to the Point 110 New Cemetery to talk about the poet Sigfried Sassoon. Sassoon was Owen’s poetic mentor during the war. It is well worth reading about their relationship and the influence Sassoon had on Owen’s poetry. Their experience in the war led to a poetry critical of the war. “Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war. Their view was vastly different from that of the jingoists like Kipling and Rupert Brooke.” Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war.
Both poets became widely read in the United States during the Vietnam War. I read them several years before while working on my master’s thesis.
At New Cemetery we stood before three graves, one next to the other. Tony and Nick described the significance.
“On March 18, 1916 (this, before the Battle of the Somme) Robert Graves and Sigfried Sassoon were devastated when, within a space of 24 hours, three subalterns were killed, 2nd Lt. David Thomas, Prichard, and Richardson. Sassoon was particularly upset at Thomas’ death, with whom he was clearly in love.” Le Cateau & The Somme: A Tour: Aug 25-28, 2014 by Antony and Nicholas Bird.
Sigfried Sassoon stood at the foot of the hole while three were buried. Thereafter, “He began to undertake dangerous duties, especially patrols, sometimes going into No Man’s Land. Sassoon became known as ‘Mad Jack.’”
The day before we toured the Military Museum in Peronne, France. I watched an official British Army film showing the burial of a dozen soldiers. Each was wrapped in a canvas shroud, the shroud tied with rope. With care, the bodies were handed from a couple of soldiers at the top of the dirt mound to those in the hole. Around the perimeter stood the comrades of those who had been killed.
I stood at the grave site of the three, too, and was moved to tears the second time that day. Sadness and grief. Folly and waste. Loss and useless sacrifice. Of course, the war finally ended. So that was a good thing. But what was gained and what was lost?
Afterward, the war officially spoken of in terms of the old jingoism—bravery, courage, sacrifice, and so on. As Kurt Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”
The General by Sigfried Sassoon
‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
There are many blogs I have written about characters and events in The Angel of Mons. I know you will enjoy reading them. You can get to all of them at my web site: jerredmetz.com.
When we left Mons, Belgium and Le Cateau, France we visited the battlefields of the Somme with guides Tony and Nicky Bird . At the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal I stood where I would have been able to see Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, the finest and most important poet of the war, in a small boat trying to cross.
As was so often the case, the action Owen and his men were expected to carry out was difficult in the extreme. A pontoon bridge and rafts were being laid across the canal. The location was under heavy and constant machine gun fire. But the soldier must obey.
Owen was shot and killed while trying to cross the canal. For a moment I was seeing it happen before my eyes. Once in a while, especially when I hear certain songs, my chest tightens and sobs arise. This happened to me while I stood on the banks of the narrow Sambre-Oise Canal and looked at the water.
Lieutenant Owen was shot and killed a week before the Armistice was signed. At the moment when church bells were ringing in England to celebrate the Armistice, Owen’s mother was handed the telegram announcing that her son had been killed.
Owen’s war poetry is not like that of Rudyard Kipling or Rupert Brook, who both glorified war. His was of the horror and ugliness, the brutality and pointlessness of it. In the “The End” he asked:
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Or fill these void veins full again with youth,
And wash with an immortal water, age?
The answer to these rhetorical questions is No. These few lines convey a sense of Owen’s view of war.
His mother, Susan Owen, quoted from these lines for her son’s gravestone. However, she removed the question mark after the second sentence, reversing her son’s poem’s very meaning. And she left out the rest of the stanza. She thought it better to let those who view his grave, which is frequently visited, thing that he believed that God (he) will cancel (annul) death, that there is life after. This is not what her son wrote.
I have had an academic interest in World War I for a long time. My Masters thesis was on a tetralogy, (four related novels) about the First World War, Parade’s End by Ford Mattox Ford. In my study for that work I also read deeply in the poets of the war, especially Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon.
I am also a poet, having had five books of poetry published. Poets often feel a kinship with one another. So while I was surprised at the depth of my emotions, I was not surprised that I was moved. I am grateful for being at that place, having those emotions, and, in that small way paying tribute to Owen. I thank him for helping shape my own attitude toward war when I read him years ago.