Tendance Coatesy

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The Armistice and the Literature of the Great War.

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Image result for the general sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon.

 

Both of my grandfathers fought in the Great War. My English forebear was, like his brothers, a socialist and a Clarion cyclist. Perhaps inspired by Robert Blatchford’s patriotic seizure at the outbreak of hostilities, Alfred, after a few pints with his friends, walking from Bethnal Green to the City, signed up. My Scottish ancestor,  James, was also a socialist. Less taken by the fight against the Boche and a member  of the ILP, which had a strong anti-war sentiments,  he was swept up by conscription.

I properly got know Alfred when, retired from his work in the Print, and very elderly, he and his wife moved to Bounds Green in North London. He talked of Dickens (I have his complete set) and his Labour beliefs, but never spoke about his war. My mother told me that he had been so desperate in the trenches that had tried to nerve himself up to shoot himself in the foot to get out as wounded. He told her that the officers had been brave, helped by spirits. My grandmother’s first husband, of Huguenot descent like her, had been killed. Left with a small child she got no support from his family. Alfred took to her. They married and had two other children.

Neither of my grandparents ever wore a Poppy. The East Ender said once a few words, not complimentary, about the British Legion who produce them. They did not need to display one; my parents never had one: I do not need to wear one.

Some of the books and poems that we read about the Great War stay in our hearts. Sassoon’s lines in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (1928) “And here I was, with my knobkerrie in my hand, staring across at the enemy I’d never seen.” The words of An Irish Airman Foresees his Death (1919) “my country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor, No likely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before.” (W.B. Yeats). And the immortal, “The Old Lie: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. (posthumously published in 1920, Wilfred Owen).

The chapters in Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) on his harrowing service in the first wave of the Somme offensive, holds a special place in the literature. He captures “feeling “empty and lost” amongst the slaughter, death sentences for “cowardice”, army pettiness and incompetence, alongside the soldiers’ good sense and humour. Wounded in the cemetery at Bazentin-le-petit church on 20 July 1916 These experience is complemented by the memorable pages of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth on her work as a nurse  in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, which took her to london, Malta and  France.

The most obvious difference with literature in French and German is that authors from these countries were writing about battles taking place on their own landscape. Barbusse’s, vivid, trench language-filled,  Le Feu: journal d’une escouade, 1916 is blood and fury. Babusse added sonorous appeals against national hatred . With its passion it stands head and soldiers over the to-be-Panthonised, Maurice Genevoix’s Ceux de 14, photographic realism, gutted of politics. Ernst Jünger’s Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel is technically one of the finest, but politically already full of the nationalism which wroke havoc in Germany.

There is more common decency and humanity in writers such as Graves than anything that a cheap-jack journalist or ‘radical’ has written in the last few days.

Sunday, one hopes, with see these cited amongst the witnesses of the Great War.