Armistice Day at Southfields Community College

They say that there is a First World War memorial in just about every city, town and village in Great Britain. Within those cities, towns and villages, there will often be more than one place set aside for reflection on the sacrifice of the dead. There are memorials that go unseen by casual eyes: in churches and cathedrals to dead parishoners, in town halls, post offices, schools. Here at Southfields we have our own First World War memorial, and it’s one of the more beautiful modern memorials that you’re likely to see.

A few years ago some of our younger art students were encouraged to make tiles depicting scenes and symbols of the First World War. They made brightly coloured tiles of poppies, soldiers, trenches, airplanes and pressings of barbed wire and iron. They coloured these and gave them a beautiful glossy glaze. Finally, they constructed a tableau out of the different elements, arranged around the words, ‘We Remember’. My picture really doesn’t do the bright simplicity of the arrangement justice: you can see it in the college’s reception hallway. It’s a favourite part of the school buildings.

The Southfields War Memorial, made by our own pupils.

Today the school stopped for its minute’s silence which, as usual, was observed impeccably. History classes lead up to Armistice day and our pupils are well informed about the reasons for observing the silence and respecting the dead. Remembrance Day at Southfields also takes in those affected by many of the contemporary wars that have ravaged the planet, and too many of our pupils have been forced from the lands of their birth by conflict and death. Remembrance Day is not an abstract moment of reflection for some at our school. The war memorial at the very entrance to our school seems to commemorate that.

My AS class met today and together we read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see my post yesterday), watched a film of the coffin’s passage from France to Westminster, and the discussed the last days of the war. Then we read extracts from Max Arthur’s excellent ‘Forgotten Voices’, the words of those who knew how it felt on the 11th of November 1918.

The answer is not romantic. In London celebrations ensued. Elsewhere, exhaustion and sorrow reigned supreme. As Sergeant Major Richard Tobin of the Hood Battalion testified:

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste, and the friends I had lost.

The discussion we had about these feelings was perceptive and, for me, moving. At the end of the lesson, the class and I (well, half of the class at least– the rest were on a trip) went down to visit our memorial and allow me to take a photograph. It’s not a solemn picture, and that’s as should be when your English teacher keeps messing up with his camera.

The Southfields AS English Literature class, sharing a moment. Left to Right: Solomon, Toni, Jarry, Aakanksha, Abdul and Ryan.

A good Remembrance Day.

The Unknown Warrior

London Victoria: the end of the line.

London Victoria: the end of the line. It is for me. If I want to go into London, as I occasionally do, chances are I’ll be arriving in this unlovely station, rail hub for the South of the city, nestled between Westminster Cathedral to its east and Buckingham Palace Gardens to the North. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Except Victoria was blighted by bombing during the Blitz, and many of the byways near to the station are lined by Sixties monsters, ugly buildings made of concrete and glass. The station itself is a depressing place. Always heaving with people, it’s a characterless zone of rubbishy commuter shops. My train pulls into platforms 9 or 10. Electronic barriers and concrete greet you. You’d never think history had profoundly touched this place.

Ninety years ago tonight, it did. At platform 8, at 8.32 p.m., November 10th 1920, a train pulled into the station, carrying something that would soon become immeasurably precious to those British people still mourning the dead of the First World War.

That thing was the body of an unknown British soldier. Previously, in act of elaborate symbolism, the bodies of four dead soldiers of unknown identity were exhumed from Ypres, Somme, Arras and Aisne. From these one was chosen ‘blindly’ to represent all the ‘unknown’ British soldiers– those soldiers without a name on their grave, or a grave at all. The body of this soldier, amidst much reverent ceremony, was shipped home to London. It arrived at Victoria the night before its transfer to a final resting place.

The Cenotaph, 1920. Note the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, bottom left.

The next day– the third Armistice Day– that soldier would be buried in Westminster Abbey. The coffin bearing the body was taken by carriage to Whitehall, where a new memorial to World War One, the Cenotaph, was unveiled by King George V. From there the king and the government’s ministers followed the coffin to the Abbey, where the body was buried in soil taken from the battlefields of Ypres, “where so many of [the soldier’s] comrades had lost their lives”.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, its dedication inscribed into black Belgian marble.

The act of burying this ‘Unknown Warrior’ was profoundly moving for many in the country. Many families across the nation had lost fathers, brothers and sons in the four years of war; too many families had no grave to visit to mourn their losses. It is a horrifying Commonwealth Graves statistic (found on the excellent 1914-18 website) that of all those British and Commonwealth forces killed in the First World War, 526,816 men have no named grave. Furthermore, while these dead men are listed on WWI memorials, of that figure 338,955 men were never buried at all. Their identifiable remains were never traced. That sickening fact alone explains why the act of honouring this anonymous soldier drew tens of thousands into the streets on the 11th, and many thousands more to the grave itself in the months and years to follow. Some may have felt that it was their loved one who was buried at the entrance to the Cathedral; many more will have found consolation in the country’s deep gesture of respect for the unknown dead.

Westminster Abbey

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was a profound moment in the mourning of many people in Britain in 1920, and it remains a focus point for remembrance today. Tomorrow, the grave of the unknown warrior will again be revisited with a wreath of poppies, signifying that the country has not forgotten the sacrifice of the body below the stones.

Tonight, as has happened every November 10th since 1920, a small ceremony was held at Platform 8, Victoria Station, London, to remember the arrival of the unknown soldier. There’s something heartening in the continuity of that ceremony, I think: progress, after all, means embracing the new, and honouring the best of the past. If you get the chance, and are someday stuck in the grim extended waiting room that is Victoria station, walk along to Platform 8 and pay your respects too.

If you want to learn more about the tomb of the unknown warrior, you can find out about it on the web. There’s an excellent page on the soldier and grave at the Imperial War Museum’s Collections; another at Home of Heroes; a good history with an amazing video of the actual passage of the body from France to London at the Westminster Abbey website; and a short account on the BBC history pages.

The Volunteer – Herbert Asquith

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

NOTES

This poem tells the story of an office worker who has died in battle on the front. Once he was a frustrated clerk living a boring life, living out his heroic fantasies through books. Dying for his country he finds true satisfaction, having lived out his heroic dreams. Asquith wrote this poem in 1912 when working as a lawyer in the City [many thanks to the excellent blog Great War Fiction for correcting my own previous error and therefore an erroneous reading].

STRUCTURE: Written in a rather rigid iambic pentameter— obviously attempting a high-flown, elevated style— this is comprised of two octet stanzas of the same rhyme scheme, ABBACDCD.

‘The Volunteer’: this poem praises the noble death of a volunteer who chose to go and fight for Britain.

Herbert Asquith: Herbert Asquith was the son of the liberal British Prime Minister of the same name who led Britain from 1910-16.

“Here lies a clerk”: the poem begins in the style of an epitaph for a clerk, or office worker.

“toiling at ledgers in a city grey”: the office worker’s life is boring and undemanding: as grey as the city.

“…no lance broken in life’s tournament…”: a picturesque metaphor for seeing action in war: medieval tournaments saw knights riding and fighting against one another for the approval of the king. A lance broken would mean defeat for the knight. The metaphor reflects the kind of romantic literature that the clerk obviously reads for amusement; the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, and so on.

“ever ‘twixt the books… The gleaming eagles of the legions came ”: the clerk’s imagination goes wild while reading the boring ledger books. Images of marching Roman legions distract him and so come ’twixt, or between the ledgers and his “bright eyes”.

“horsemen… went thundering past beneath the oriflamme”: the Oriflamme was the red battle standard (flag) of the French King’s army. This is another reference to the Romantic medieval fantasies of the clerk.

“And now those waiting dreams are satisfied…”: the second stanza is concerned with the fulfillment of the clerk’s heroic fantasies on the field of battle.

“twilight to the gleaming halls of dawn”: the half-lit spaces of the office are compared with the “gleaming halls” of the afterlife. The imagery of light and luxury expresses the contrast.

“His lance is broken: but he lies content…”: The imagery here is of a knight defeated in a tournament. A lance was a long, large spear that the knight would bear as he rode on his horse. The broken lance means defeat in the tournament (in a curiously phallic image): by this euphemistic metaphor, the clerk has died in battle, but is happy (“content”).

“Falling thus he wants no recompense”: dying in this pleasing way, he needs no other compensation for losing his life.

“Nor need he any hearse…Who goes to join the men of Agincourt”: No hearse (funeral car) is needed because the clerk lives on in name and glory. He is elevated to a place among the greatest historical heroes that have died in France for England: the men of Henry V, who though outnumbered defeated the French army on French soil at the Battle of Agincourt.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The naive style of this poem means that it can be usefully compared with the work of Pope. This poem can also be compared with the attitudes expressed in Kipling’s epitaph, ‘Ex-Clerk’ (p.214). As a mixture of patriotism, some little social snobbery and old-fashioned Romantic fantasy, it is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of some prior to the beginning of the war. The poem also references the great patriotic work of Shakespeare, Henry V: which retells the story of the victories of Henry V in France, which includes the Battle of Agincourt.]

The First World War From Above

The moaning in my last entry was, it seems, premature. Last night the Beeb showed a new documentary on the First World War: ‘The First World War From Above’. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but it’s here on iPlayer, and is narrated by Fergal Keane, who is an excellent journalist. As a documentary it should be worth watching.

That sounds a little grudging, perhaps. OK, to come straight to the point: the big idea behind the documentary (why do all documentaries need a ‘big idea’ today? Why do all cookery programs need a ‘mission’?) annoys me a little. The documentary is about showing the war as it was seen from the skies– from Zeppelins, observation balloons and aircraft. This should indeed give us some interesting pictures of World War One– looking at things literally from a different angle, after all– but however novel the perspective, I wonder if the basic idea isn’t really quite trivial.

Let’s hope ‘The First World War From Above’ turns out to be a little more informative and useful than all those ‘Second World War in Colour’ docs. I’ll write my verdict in the Comments section– perhaps I’m just being an old misery! Give your verdict there too.

Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

96 Years On: the Battle of Gheluvelt

96 years after it ended, the Battle of Gheluvelt has hit the news on BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show, Today.

An army map of the Battle of Gheluvelt, October 1914. British army positions in red, German attacking battalions in green.

It is October 31st 1914 and the German advance across Belgium towards France presses on, reaching the village of Gheluvelt on the outskirts of the town of Ypres. There, soldiers of the Worcestershire regiment reinforce a small group of South Wales Borderers at the Gheluvelt Chateau. Their mission is to stop the German advance at all costs: they succeed, but lose many lives in the process.

The Battle of Gheluvelt is significant as the nearest that the German army would come to breaking through Allied lines at Ypres until 1918. At Gheluvelt, a well organised and brave counter-attack by the Worcesters pushed the attacking Germans back. The town of Ypres would become a bloody crater over the next four years of war; but it never again would be so near to being overran.

At Gheluvelt 354 men of the Worcestershire regiment charged the advancing German troops (more than three times their number) by running across open ground with bayonets fixed while under machine gun fire. A third of the Worcesters died in the counter-attack, but they managed to repel the German push.

Gheluvelt, October 31st, 1914.

You can read about this action at the very beginning of the First World War on Today‘s website. You can find a detailed account of the Battle of Gheluvelt on the Worcestershire Regimental Museum webpage; and how the battle is memorialised through the town of Worcester’s own Gheluvelt Park.

Phil Mackie, the article’s author, writes that the Battle of Gheluvelt is today largely forgotten. I’m not sure I buy that: the First Battle of Ypres, of which the Battle of Gheluvelt is a part, is not a neglected action, at least by those who are interested in the history of World War One.

Gheluvelt was however a dynamic and heroic counter-attack: and indeed Mackie reasons that this may be why most people have not heard of it, despite its strategic importance. The stories we tend to tell about World War One are trench-siege horrors, not dashing actions across open ground, he argues. True: but the brutal history of the four years to follow, and the millions of dead, will tend to push even the most heroic action into the footnotes of history.

Still, it’s nice to see this story of extraordinary bravery get a wider audience.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]