Tuesday, 10 November 2015

How the War Poets Defined the Great War II

Sophie Whitehead presents the second of a three-part study of the ways in which contemporary writers portrayed the First World War and the misconceptions that people still hold about the war a hundred years later. 

The Fall of the Class System

With the changes that WW1 brought with it, so did it bring a change in the aristocrats of society. At the turn of the century more than 80% of Britain were employed as servants to the rich, upper classes. With an empire that ruled over a quarter of the world's population, Britain in 1914 was an immensely powerful country. At home, British life was strictly stratified into a class system. The upper and middle class people were brought up to believe the lower classes were dirty and inferior, although they were prepared to employ them as servants. Many believed Britain was unattainable and unbeatable, and it was this high morale that led many into war. Britain had an immense navy and it dominated world trade. The mines of South Wales transported more coal to Cardiff for shipping than any mine around the world. Coal was the principle commodity in 1914 and powered ships, trains and kept houses warm so, after the defeat of the Boer’s earlier at the turn of the century many believed that this World War would be the same story. Britain won all its wars, so why couldn't it win this one?

In fact many even joined up to the war effort to defy the class system and saw the war as a way to defy the working class stereotype at the time. The First World War was the first major war which saw everyone, no matter what class or place in life you came from, united to defeat a common enemy. On top of this women played an invaluable role in slotting themselves into the work allotments whilst the soldiers were fighting overseas. It was this which also saw the gradual introduction of women in the working world, and fought again against a stereotype of women as simply mothers and wives. With women working came the large suffragette movement which saw the introduction of votes for women in 1922. A common misconception of the Great War is that it was only the working class who suffered. Although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard as well. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men. Some 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils - 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured. The war effected everyone from all walks of life; it was this which added and reigned the totalitarian of the pain experienced from the war worldwide.

The firing of over 5000 bombs across all of Great Britain meant that no matter how wealthy you were, one could still be affected by the events of the war. This acted as a way of joining up people from all waves of life as they could all relate to each other.

World War One Literature

‘Heroes’ ~ Robert Kormier

Upon reading the book, even for a first time, it is clear from the start that it is one which will provide an alternative viewpoint, one far more similar to that of Barbusse’s views than a pro-militarist. ‘Heroes’ aims to explain the common isolation soldiers would feel using the storyline of a disfigured soldier who has returned back from the First World War to a world in which few understand, and those that do and fought alongside him, simply want to remove the memory of the conflict from their head. The main protagonist Francis Cassavant is described from outlook as a ‘war hero’ for the ‘the Silver Star [he] earned’ even though others upon retuning home look at him with disgust as his injuries are obvious to all. The story that Francis brings back with him from the war is not one filled with the bravery and honour of fighting for ones country, but rather one of digression and embarrassment. Kormier inspires images of sick soldiers becoming ill and troubled in war, ‘…and he is clutching his stomach because he has had diarrhoea for three days,’ showing the changing effects of a war not only on a person mentally, as is often imagined but the physical turmoil they had to go through too. ‘Heroes’ does in some ways portray the harsh realities of war stereotypically for a modern audience who have had more ways to research and investigate the Great War first hand but for those that knew little about it, it would speak of horrific truths. Kormier attempts to show that war is terribly grim, brutal, painful and also that the soldiers act differently to how they would back home. They are ashamed and embarrassed and also exceptionally uncomfortable because they are ill yet cannot rest or relieve themselves because they have to fight.

However when we think about war, illness and disease do not immediately spring to mind. This is because the media does not portray this part of war. In this case, when war is portrayed in the media, often this side of the solider is not shown, but the book covers all aspects of a soldier’s life and actually gives a more detailed description than that of many News programmes. The media seeks many restrictions; the time you watch it for example, the news programme you watch or depending on the newspaper that you read depends on the graphical content available for the reader or observer. This is clearly shown in the simple comparison of a modern day mainstream news channel; the BBC for example, which is a very central news programme, which does not show much graphical content contrasted with that of Al Jazeera, an Arab owned news programme, which has shown videos of decapitation and torture of many western hostages and has shown live coverage of western prisoners of war (something which is illegal to do under the Geneva convention.) This shows that a more central news programmes (such as the BBC) content will differ enormously to that of a more extreme news programme (such as Al Jazeera).     
The novel also seeks to defy stereotypes and cliques that often accompany a somewhat old fashioned image of a solder. Unlike the cliched version that soldiers are self confident and think of themselves as brave heroes, the novel attempts to provide an alternate interpretation. ‘…I am not a hero, of course,’ speaks Cassavant, when he tells of his time in the war as he returns home with nothing but a disfigured body and a scarred mind filled with memories of raids and combat yet ‘if anything bothers me [Cassavant] its my nose,’ completely defying a conventional image of veterans as self-confident and cocky; when in fact they do not think they are heroes at all. This is something in which we honour but when the soldiers are actually fighting, do not regard themselves or value themselves as. We are often never shown this side to the soldier because the media focuses more on the war, or the politics of the war, than that of the actual soldier’s life. The way that the book is portrayed in comparison to the media in this case is that the book tells of the soldier’s feelings and afflictions on the front line whereas the media journalists in World War One were limited and ensured to stay away from the actual battlefield but gather their information through a third party rather than actually experiencing it themselves. The book is also not censored to what can and cannot be said whereas many journalists have to be careful on what they can state. To explain this point further, I harness the example of a Journalist for the BBC, Bryan Hanrahan, who wrote after the Falklands war, who stated, ‘I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.’ The news that the British did not lose any troops is conveyed but it does show the tight restrictions placed on those covering important news. Indirect, censored news was that told of the war in 1914 unlike the graphic novellas that were appearing from those on the Western Front themselves. Journalists that did report on the actual events of war, due to the tight censorship, could often face prosecution or worst, death if found to report on something too secretive, and hence provide information to the enemy or even if found to report on something which would lower morale. Such journalists were labelled enemies of the state, and often murdered. Moreover the true accuracy of a good piece of journalism requires an excellent factual base – something in which many news programmes did not have in 1914 when the Great War was beginning to become documented. Many of these programmes exaggerate war for the opposing sides. Anup Shah[1] states; the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support.’’ This justification shows that sometimes the media over dramatises problems in order to get more support from their side, and instead of using entirely just facts and figures starts using personal opinion as well, which is when even greater problems start to arise. This problem was another reason why soldiers did not receive the help they needed when they returned home. Because the public was kept so far away from the actual ideals of a war time environment at the Front they could hardly empathise with a troop of disfigured soldiers returning from war. This constant misunderstanding exaggerated the effects of shell shock on the individual; who would feel even more isolated and alone than they had whilst being at the front. No one understood that a soldier could not just ‘snap out’ of such a stressful environment that they had been induced to when they returned home or the fact that the memories of the war would often  haunt the individual far after they had left the Western Front.

The constant ideal of the soldier as a ‘hero’ also caused confusion to the public who would see a soldier elevated to a position of high moral authority and trust which therefore almost created the idea that the soldier was not a human being. This confusion would often lead the public to believe these soldiers were in some way ‘super-human’ or without worry, fear or anguish whereas, as a modern audience, we know that this was far from the truth. The modern audience gets a far better idea of the atrocities a war time environment can bring, whereas the generation of 1914 would have had no such idea. All the soldiers in Kormier’s novel are described as ‘tense, nervous and scared.’ This immediately defies a stereotype of the 1914 hero, or at least calls into question what a true hero is. In contrast to this approach by literature, the media fails to convey to us a true feeling of how the soldiers feel and it is very hard to decipher personal opinion from truth or false fact. On top of this the media failed to convey the actual age of soldiers who signed up; another issue which Kormier’s novel addresses. Cassavant speaks of ‘…I had to alter my name and forge a birth certificate.’ The lengths these young men would take to join the army and fight for Queen and Country; to be this gallant, brave war ‘hero’ without really any idea of the turmoil and stress it would play was highly broadcasted in the media. It also portrays a cruel irony; ordinary young men were breaking laws to fight for a government that enforced them - and the government was allowing it to happen. Such was the desperation to wage off the enemy and win the war. However, one has to evaluate that in such a simple act; the mere desperation to be part of the war effort overseas, displays a naivety and youngness that the soldiers were trying to repel. In fact war documents show that Sidney Lewis, who has been recognised as Britain's youngest soldier to serve in the Great War, enlisted with the East Surrey Regiment in August 1915, five months after his 12th birthday, and was fighting on the Somme by the age of 13.

In conclusion ‘Heroes’ provides a very modern and post war account of the Great War, including all information that a modern audience is able to gather these days. It takes its story from an unusual point of view however and examines the effects of the war on the soldiers life from several angles - humanising the soldier as his own individual rather than just seeing him as a machine on the battle field.

‘Birdsong’ (1999) ~ Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks is perhaps the most comprehensive of all modern day accounts of the war. Although written far after the war had ended, it maintains an air of mystery about its narrative by supplying the reader with insight; such as that of the tunnellers, that was not commonly played on before. The book explores all key themes of war as well as the differences in interpretations of war and how war changes the individuals when they return. It tells the story of the central protagonist, Stephen Wraysford who from offset ‘was not a popular officer’ who ‘found it difficult to think of words of encouragement or inspiration when he himself did not believe there was a purpose to the war or an end to it in sight.’ Faulks portrays the differing beliefs that war brought about; and this line of thinking can be seen to closely resemble Siegfried Sassoon's. It is as if the book is a real life metaphor for the horrors of war mixed with the sensuality of love. The futility of the war colours Stephen’s personality. The reader first observes Stephen as a young adult with few problems yet as the book continues we see a gradual demise into a man who is absorbed by the stages, complexity and carnage of war. It is as if Stephen’s character could be projected on many a soldier who actually fought in the war to bring a modern day audience a mirroring of the life that they experienced. Stephen’s life changes enormously on the impact of the war, as many soldiers lives did and as we see him pass through stages of diffidence, fear and finally a subdued optimism on his home leave in Norfolk when he feels a sense of ‘binding love,’ it is telling that he returns to this country when the war is over, his character is formatted and changed by his experiences in war. The book explores the tense class system via Stephen’s origins as an isolated figure as a ‘Lincolnshire farm boy’ from working class background. This perhaps shines a light to the fact that in reality, many working class men did sign up in order to escape this form of life and embrace a new form of living. As for Stephen he is ‘relieved’ by the start of the war as it allows him a vent to escape his previous lover, Isabelle and the ‘sudden loss of her’ which as such allows ‘the suppressed frustrations and unexpressed violence of his life [to be] turned into hatred of the Germans.’ (161) Stephen’s centrality of the novel means his experience of the war dominates the war scenes. His injuries are detailed, as is the part he plays in the attacks on the enemy. He is the only one rescued from the tunnel in the penultimate section and because he has been followed throughout we are given some satisfaction in the midst of the carnage because at least he survives. This is contrasted with the fact that he does not speak two years after the war and dies at the relatively young age of 48. We are reminded that ‘like a lot of men of that generation, he never really recovered.’

The constant motif of ‘birdsong’ (as immediately inferred by the title) also seeks to defy the balance between war and peace; merging the two into a cruel cocktail of emotion. The narrative avoids making the distinctions between war and peace too simplistic and this is why Stephen's phobia of birds and the constant birdsong heard at the beginning of the novel ‘It was a spring evening with a late sun in the sky beyond the cathedral and the sounds of blackbirds from either side of the house’  follows throughout the novel right until the end ‘A lark was heard singing in the unharmed air above him’ as a constant haunting of the fear of war which haunted all the soldiers for years after they would leave the battlefield. This aspect of characterisation means the title of the novel has an ironic twist for Stephen, who is afterall scared of birds; the sound of birds denotes terror rather than peace. This fear sits ironically with the received belief that birdsong is an emblem of innocence because for Stephen it is a form of torture.

The novel is also clever in its foreshadowing of the events of the future. Split over three generations ‘Birdsong’ allows the First World War to be seen from all perspectives; as it had never been seen before. The episode in the ‘Somme water gardens’ sees Stephen remarking that ‘what was held to be a place of natural beauty was a stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay;’ an immediate foreshadowing of the horrors that would recall at the Battle of the Somme simply years after. Stephen is ‘repelled’ by the ‘stagnation’ of the gardens which in itself is ironic seeing as the Somme water gardens were meant to be beautiful then, which can only show an irony in the future when the gardens have become a death pit for the Battle and the conditions are far worse.  The future is also referred to when Stephen visits the cathedral and has a premonition of sorts about a ‘terrible piling up of the dead,’ ‘the row on row’ and ‘the deep rotting earth hollowed out to hold them’ which again can be seen to refer to the forthcoming massacre of men in the First World War. Death comes to be seen by Stephen as the end of time and his prediction of the number of the dead is later referred to as a moment of recognition explaining the change in his attitude to religion. Faulks uses the technique of prolepsis to foreshadow the events in the novel later on. When the Battle is told, the narrative slows down to make it more realistic and to capture the agony and death the men suffer as they wait to go over the trenches. This is epitomised in their taking of communion ‘Communion was over but the men stayed kneeling. Having communed with their beginnings they wanted to die where they were without enduring the day ahead of them.’ The sound of bombardment of the enemy lines prior to the ill fated attack show the unnaturalness of the event. It is symbolic that it is hard to follow the words of Horrocks, the padre, because of the ‘terrible crashing of the sky’ as the tenets of Christianity are muffled by, if not completely lost to the sound of warfare. The pastor himself loses his ‘old reflex’ [whilst] still persisting he fell to his knees, but he did not pray…Jack knew what had died in him.’ Faulks describes the war, much as Sassoon or Owen described it; simply as a crime against nature which is epitomised when Weir “began to cry; ‘What have we done?’ ‘What have we done?’ Listen to it. We’ve done something terrible, we’ll never get it back to how it was before!’” Even the soil is personified as ‘groaning’ and ‘protesting’ - the earth is protesting against this human made apocalypse.

Moreover the novel handles other issues; such as the great weight in punishment for sleeping on duty - greeted usually by troops with a court martial. In reality, the British and Commonwealth military command executed 306 of its own men during the Great War. Those shot brought such shame on their country that many of their names still do not appear on official war memorials; for example Private Thomas Highgate who, at seventeen and unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Highgate was executed just thirty five days into the war. Faulks explores this through a principle character; Jack Firebrace who is also used as a metaphorical representation of the works that the tunnellers did and their building of the underground trenches in WW1. Jack becomes encapsulated in the belief that he will lose his life because of the court martial of sleeping on duty but contrasted with this Faulks kills four of his colleagues in a tunnel explosion perhaps calling into question the severity of the situation they all find themselves in and the entrapment the soldiers faced. There is a cruel irony - his and his colleagues work in life threatening circumstances day by day yet the threat of a court martial is the one that scares him. Faulks also introduces the work of the miners through Firebrace and the tunnellers which previously had not been touched upon and their fundamental support of the war was something that was not really known. Faulks hence provides something new to his novel but at the same time uses it as an act of remembrance for the men that have been lost in the war. By the inclusion of their storyline the history has been preserved in fiction and readers in the 21st century are at least made aware of the conditions they endured. Faulks further prevents the novel being one only made up of the officer class by showing his own graduation up the ranks from a working class man in the infantry to being promoted. This provides a well rounded viewing of everyones life in war; one not restricted at all in terms of work and class.

Faulks explores the unreliability of propaganda and media in correctly reporting the war. Stephen voices how civilians in Britain know very little about the reality of trench warfare or the conditions they have to endure; ‘This is not a war, it is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.’ The false notions of bravery and signing up for ‘King and Country’ are squashed by the true horrific realities of war. On top of this Faulks portrays the dehumanising effects of battle when Stephen takes his friend, Michael Weir, to the prostitute house. When Stephen remembers the last time he had sex ‘six years ago’ his tenderness towards the prostitute dissolves; ‘the body was only flesh but she had taken hers away from him. In her physical absence there was more than missing flesh; there was abandonment.’ He also sees the body of the woman he is with as ‘animal matter, less valuable than the flesh of the men he had seen die’ - the reader has to consider how the war has changed him and has to call into question this previous love which has been lost and replaced with an inalienable sense of blood and a lust for normality. This irrevocable change in the men is explored most keenly in Weirs return home as the contrast between their previous lives and how the war has changed them is epitomised in his hopes for the ‘familiar wash of normality’ yet finds that none of his clothes fit him or even the ‘familiar view’ from the window gives him no sense of belonging. This is contrasted with the overfamiliarity of his family who act like he has not been away at all. It seems the war has altered him irrevocably. His parent’s reluctance to understand the pain Weir has gone through ‘I know we just wish it was all over’ heightens the alienation their own son feels and acts as a metaphor for the blocking of information to the general public. The faces of the crowd show their shock at the sight of these men who do not fit the propagandists image of the ‘all conquering’ heroes. The war no longer makes headline news and Stephen is treated disrespectfully in a shop. He recognises now how the war is being increasingly overlooked ‘He would have been embarrassed to be treated differently from ordinary citizens…but it seemed strange to him that his presence was a matter not just of indifference but resentment.’ There is a complete ignorance for what the troops are fighting for experienced by the general public and is a clear example of the lack of accurate dedicative media.

Finally the use of ‘Elizabeth’ who is presented in the future of the war and is useful in showing how the past can shape the present. She possesses a determination to ‘unearth’ about the war which is led by her lack of understanding and her determination to reveal more about herself. When she sees the Thiepval memorial her reaction is ‘Nobody told me;’ a reaction possibly demonstrating the necessity of knowing about this massive loss of life. Elizabeth may be interpreted as a cipher for highlighting how easy it is for information to be lost in this relatively short time frame. Her absence of children is also a spur for her to discover the past for ‘if she had no children herself she should at least understand what had gone before her, she ought to know what line she was not continuing’ as well as her thoughts of her own son having to fight in this ‘hellish perversion.’ The directive ‘blood thirsty’ instead of bloody thirsty is significant - ‘something about the way bloodthirsty was split into two made Elizabeth shudder.’ Her squeamishness is understandable to modern readers and compared with the experiences Stephen underwent in the war, actually highlights her relatively secure existence until now. This link is established further when she contacts Stephen’s friends who fought in the war; both Gray and Brennan in the hope of discovering more information about Stephen. Her finding of old artefacts; such as Stephen’s military handbook and notebook also reveal what Stephen actually thought of the war. He writes; ‘No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand’ She thought of Tom Brennan who had only known life and death and death in life. In her generation there was no intensity.’ This lack of intensity may be viewed as pleasurable result of not having to fight in war but the comparably ‘frivolous’ life she leads is counterbalance to the suffering her grandfather and men like him were exposed to. It demonstrates, by comparison, how great his privations were. This quotation shows the distance again between the public and those at war but also the desperate need Faulks exploits that the past be remembered as to not be repeated. The use of the character Brennan is employed as a living reminder of the war and how the horrors of war can haunt forever and can inflict on the living. He is unable to distinguish between the past and the present and confuses events of different years as he conflates the Boer war with WW1 and WW2 to show a clash of time and focus. It is though he has retreated from the reality he has known in the war and as the nurse tells Elizabeth ‘this is all they know, all they can remember.’ Brennan is a symbol for remembering those who have served in war and is also a trope for pointing out the significance of history. Elizabeth reflects how ‘she had somehow kept the chain of experience intact.’ ‘Somehow she would repay the debt. She would complete the circle.’

The Force of Patriotism through the Media & Film

Britain entered into a War it was not prepared for and which lasted far longer than any expected it to last. Because of this it was of the utmost importance to be able to maintain a high morale both for the soldiers going off to fight on the Front Line but also for the people back at home.

Many would argue that the conflict was supplied very badly to the people back at home, which in a large number of cases caused an increased rise in the syndrome ‘shell shock’ as when the soldiers finally returned back from battle, scarred with images and sights from their time fighting, the public could not understand why they were continually so frightened. The British public were not allowed a look into the war which was taking place overseas and instead only saw the war confined to their own country. This, in turn, enhanced the soldiers’ feelings of disconcerted dismay when they realised that no one, bar the people they had fought alongside, could understand truly what ordeal they had been through. WW1 was the first totalitarian war after all and therefore the whole of the British public were needed to support the war effort, if Britain was to win.

Some even label the First World War as the first time that the media and government put a ‘spin’ on the stories they told. The government’s first challenge was to make sure they had enough men to fight when joining up for the war so the first two years saw a propaganda push (with Kitcheners posters for recruitment flying high across the city) which drove over a million men to volunteer. By 1917, conscription had been introduced so the need to drive people to war via propaganda was no longer needed. However, the government faced a much larger problem; to persuade the people of Britain to continue supporting a war that was costing more – in money, resources and lives – than anyone could have foreseen. It was this which spectated the birth of an entirely new form of communication from the government to the people. Prime Minister Lloyd George needed to talk directly to the people and influence their attitudes and their behaviour in order to ensure that they followed what he wanted them to follow.

Propaganda was published, whether it was fact or fiction, based on simply the audience it would recruit and the image it wanted to portray. Documented were the journalistic falsities in which a war far different from what was actually happening was being portrayed but a sweeping generalisation of the entire press service is not fair. Journalists were prevented from informing the public into the real story by the government and the military. Newspapers began by demonising the German enemy. They published fabricated stories of German barbarism, which were accepted as fact. Censorship too, monopolising all forms of communication in life; telegrams, letters from the western front to loved ones at home, newspaper articles - all had to be sufficiently strictly checked to constrain reporters from obtaining information or, should they manage to get it, from publishing it. Rigid government control was exercised in conjunction with a complicit group of committed pro-war press proprietors. Orders were imposed by the government to allow totalitarian control on what people could and could not be exposed to. Such an act was that of the Defence of the Realm Act, enacted four days after hostilities began, which gave the authorities power to stifle criticism of the war effort. One of its legalisations stated: No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Its aim was to prevent publication of anything that could be interpreted as undermining the morale of the British people.

The government controlled what people were allowed to see via various ways. Even the bloodiest defeat in almost the entirety of British history at the Somme in 1916 was absent from the media and the true harrowing realities of the death and injury toll were absent from the publics knowledge. More ironic yet, the first day of the battle was actually reported as a success by Daily Mail editor, William Beach Thomas (who later wrote he was ‘deeply ashamed’ of what he had written. ‘The vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one’s own name did not lessen the shame.’) However many journalists defended their actions, with another reporter ‘Gibbs’ defending his actions in an attempt to ‘spare the feelings of men and women, who, have sons and husbands fighting in France.’ He even said that ‘apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses’ his story was true. Both men would later accept knighthoods for services to journalism.

At The Front

Little video recording was taken at the front line in order to prevent the public receiving an accurate depiction of the war overseas and to encourage them to focus their attention purely on their own war effort at home. However that which is documented is highly useful in providing accurate information into the reality of the First World War and coincided with diaries and journals from the men at the front, can help to portray a fairer story. Even then however, despite the air of authenticity the insights it can provide into the reality of World War I are premeditated representations - never the accurate depiction of the reality of the circumstance. This was mostly due to the impositions on filming supplied by military commanders, tight censorship constraints, and a number of further restrictions set narrow boundaries to production companies which aimed at shooting pictures from the war.[2]

Cameramen and documenters were despatched to battlefields all across the world; Europe; Africa; the Middle East; covering events at the Western and Eastern fronts, operations from the Alps to the Caucasus. Depictions of battle scenes were used as powerful and emotive tools of recruiting and propaganda - despite their authenticity. Because filming on the battlefield was so dangerous, cameramen were severely restricted in their movements by the size and weight of the cameras and tripods. As a result, the action often had to be captured from a fixed viewpoint in the distance; affecting the reliability of the tape. Edited films of major operations were immensely popular with cinema audiences at home. The obstacles camera operators came across seriously inhibited their ability to document actual footage both in the case that the military did not allow them to shoot actual battle scenes and also their technical equipment did not allow them to; both severely restricting actual footage being able to reach the public. However the government had to look like it was serving the public's interest with images from the war so most typically, they created fake scenes standing in for actual combat operations. Little genuine was recorded and productions that the army could manufacture were far more common; such as that of shots taken during manoeuvres, trainings, and drills.

Such an example is seen in the French documented propaganda short film clip of ‘Sur la route de Cernay’ [on the route to Cernay] which was a short reportage of the conflict in 1914.

Another is the photo captured by German photographer Wolfgang Filzinger, most likely taken during a drill or excursus seeing as nobody is actually wearing a helmet; a necessity to the standard uniform.[4] Wolfgang later commented on the hardships of photography and fighting at the front line. In an article written for a German cinema journal in 1915, he named some of the greatest challenges to his work; most notably the fact that in order to achieve an interesting piece of photography cameramen would often have to spend long periods of time in danger zone to ‘keep watch.’ However most ironically it was not just the enemy that the cameraman would have to stay hidden from; but his own troops because as soon as they realised a camera was there, the soldiers would attract attention to themselves, turning toward the camera to wave and grin - not only attracting unnecessary and dangerous attention from the enemy but also ruining the authenticity of the war clip. On top of this lenses and films were slow and the bulky and heavy cameras and tripods had to be kept ready for use all the time. To try and combat some of these problems; when taking film the cameraman would often opt for a landscape shot to try and maximise his field of view in the case of an interesting piece of material to work with later. However as a result of this the actual quality of the scene was dramatically lowered which meant that when reviewing the tapes, picture quality was often poor. In conclusion it can easily be seen that it was not only the harsh media guidelines of what could and could not be published enforced on the cameraman that made it a hard environment to work in, but also the constant risk of death they had to compete with as well.[5]

In 1916, the film ‘Battle of the Somme’ was published which gave audiences their best glimpse yet of life on the front line. It was the first time that many had seen anything other than short, staged newsreels. The film reached as many audiences as possible; some ten mobile cinemas reached over 150,000 a week. The government also invested in feature films that would promote the war as a just cause. The films were a gigantic success with 22 million tickets sold in just under six weeks. Yet still this did not portray an accurate depiction of what the war was like and it is documented that Lloyd George actually confided to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, Gibbs; ‘If people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.” He later conceded that the censors wouldn’t pass the truth”. Lloyd George removed anyone in his war office that was not completely in support of the war and as Gibbs again later stated, ‘We identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the field. We wiped out of our minds all thought of personal scoops and all temptation to write one word which would make the task of officers and men more difficult or dangerous. There was no need of censorship of our despatches. We were our own censors.’

War Poetry

Poetry was a common medium of thought and expression from those at war and although most associated with men, many women wrote poetry of their experiences too. Poetry explored the realms of the detriment a war could cause as well as the effect it had on many. It was a way for a person to try and find truth and expression out of something which seemed unexplainable.

Wilfred Owen & Siegfried Sassoon

No one can deny that many an idea sprang from the pen of Wilfred Owen, a junior officer in the trenches who joined up as a patriotic idealist but became disillusioned as a result of first-hand experience of battle. His poems sprawl decades and his friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon is one of much interest. Sassoon’s poetry is constantly remembered today for its exploration behind the reasons ‘why’ such a war should take place and its justifications against such. It maintains a satirical edge of its criticism of the military high command, seen in much of literature and disdain for unquestioning patriotism, with the anger and indignation present in much of his verse characteristic of many men who served in the trenches. Sassoon joined up to be part of the war effort and after suffering from a riding injury, was appointed Second Lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in May 1915. Six months later, he joined the 1st Battalion in France, where he would not only experience trench warfare, but also meet a fellow poet with whom his life would be inextricably linked. Despite his higher rank, Captain Robert Graves was younger than Sassoon by nine years and had already gained considerable front-line experience. Both men had an enormous love for poetry and literature and became friends very quickly. Sassoon offered his opinion on the poetry that Graves was preparing for publication; initially he disliked what he regarded as the gritty realism of Graves’s work in comparison with his own more traditional poetic imagery and language. In return, Graves introduced Sassoon to the poems of Charles Sorley (1895-1915) an officer who had been killed during the battle of Loos. Worley was described in Grave’s book ‘Goodbye to All That’ as ‘one of the three most important poets killed during the war.’ Sorley’s verse, both unsentimental and critical of jingoism”, would greatly influence both men. One of Sorley’s most famous poems; ‘All the Hills and Vales Among’ shows the solace soldiers can attempt to find in death in order to rid themselves of the constant nightmare they should face of war. Although many soldiers did often desire to die so the statements are true in many ways, its also highlights the ignorance because the soldiers should not have to feel as if they want to die to escape; Sorley thinks, much as Sassoon did too, that the ‘war should be ended by those who have the power to end it.’ A pessimistic tone rings out throughout the poem with a deep disgust for these ‘chaps’ who are most likely ‘going to die, perhaps.’

            All the hills and vales along,

            Earth is bursting into song,

            And the singers are the chaps

            Who are going to die perhaps.

            O sing, marching men,

            Till the valleys ring again.

            Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,

            So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Sassoon was also influenced by ‘For the Fallen’ by Lawrence Binyon (1869-1943) - perhaps one of the most recognised war poems to this day.

            They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

            Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

            They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,

            They fell with their faces to the foe.

            They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

            Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

            At the going down of the sun and in the morning

            We will remember them.

The last is perhaps one of the most famous verses of War poetry ever made. At the reconstruction of the New Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium this verse is repeated every day at the same time in the evening in memory of the thousands that died. The poem suggests an ignorance from the public in regards to remembrance being everlasting and the desperate need one has to hold on to the past as a way to live the future by. The words ‘we will remember them’ are used even to this day, every November 11th, to remember the First World War and the atrocities it brought for those involved.

It formed the basic idea of Sassoon’s poem ‘On Passing New Menin’s Gate’ where the instant tone of the poem is one of disgust and contempt to the war. The harsh alliterate sounds ‘Paid with a pile of peace complacent stone’ mirrors the bitterness he feels towards the war. The audience of the poem is wide, in fact it is focussed on everyone who is interested in reading about the First World War, from both angles.

Sassoon joined the war, described as one of the most innocent poet of wars ever. His reactions on the war and the military planning were bitter and violent and began a deep rooted confusion to why such a war was taking place when there seemed to be so little victory involved. As the war progressed he lost the tendencies in his writing which had previously been largely influenced by Rupert Brooke (known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War) and became more violent not only in the way he wrote his poetry but also in the way he acted on the battlefield. Because of this switch in nature and the delicacy of his writing, Sassoon is a key figure in the study of the poetry of the Great War. He began by bringing the idyllic pastoral background with him to the war and ended with a bitter anti-jingoism tone to his work which led to his time in Craiglockhart.

This violent switch in nature largely evolved from the fact that front-line service was significantly different from the warfare expected by many young men brought up on Victorian tales of dashing military heroes and masculine bravery and honour characterised by well-organised cavalry charges and gleaming uniforms. The reality of the Western Front for the average soldier could not have been more different. Purposeful activity with a clear objective was replaced by confusion and chaos, cowering in muddy trenches for no obvious reason other than to avoid death, with death itself seldom heroic but rather deeply unpleasant and terrifying. Awakened by this first taste of trench warfare and affected by the appalling conditions and constant danger, Sassoon’s poetry became much harder in both language and tone, with his earlier romantic verse forgotten in favour of the ugly reality he was now experiencing.

The death of his brother at Gallipoli coining with the death of his good friend, David Thomas, in 1916 also had an enormous effect on him and changed both his and Gravess attitude to the war. The futility and bitterness at the fighting felt by Sassoon was typical of those who had been exposed to the brutality of trench warfare.

Sassoon inflicted his new hatred of war on all aspects of his work. In his poem ‘Glory of Women’ he focuses on the underlying hypocrisy of the women involved in such as the ‘White Feather’ campaign which sought to shame soldiers for not participating in the war or for desertion, when they were so far removed from the war on the front line themselves (although not intentionally for many) but all the same they were hardly in a position to comment.

            You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave…

            Or wounded in a mentionable place.

            You believe,

            That chivalry redeems the wars disgrace.

            You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’

            When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

            Trampling the terrible corpses, blind with blood.

            O German mother dreaming by fire,

            While you are knitting socks to send your son,

            His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Sassoon here comments that women enjoy to see soldiers as ‘image-enhancing’ or that they enjoy discussing the wounds of soldiers - underlying a corrupt sense of mind perhaps on the women but also the degradation of character Sassoon experienced from a Romanticist pre-war to a fully formed pessimist of war after it. The poem highlights women’s refusal to challenge the false propaganda circulating at the time of the true conditions the men were subjected to and also to fail to see that wars really can ‘break’ a man and that they are not unmanly or any less patriotic for simply having to ‘retire.’ Linked with this was the absence of the knowledge of a condition which manifested itself into many of the soldiers that fought in WW1; shell shock. Wilfred Owen explores the absence of understanding of doctors of this condition in his poem ‘The Dead Beat,’ based on a real incident he had witnessed in France, and was the first he wrote after meeting his mentor Sassoon at Craiglockhart. The poem therefore has a strong Sassoonian influence, with a directness and bitterness untypical of Owens later, more subtle work.

He dropped, more sullenly than wearily,

Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,

And none of us could kick him to his feet;

Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;

Didn't appear to know a war was on,

Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.

"I'll do 'em in," he whined, "If this hand's spared,

I'll murder them, I will.”

A low voice said,

"It's Blighty, p'raps, he sees; his pluck's all gone,

Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren't dead:

Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;

Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun

In some new home, improved materially.

It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”

We sent him down at last, out of the way.

Unwounded; stout lad, too, before that strafe.

Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, "Not half!”

Next day I heard the Doc.'s well-whiskied laugh:

"That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!"

Owen invokes the use of colloquial language to show the different interpretations of the illness that people believed to be true. The actual phrase and titledead-beatis a colloquial term for the  constant fatigue soldiers had to deal with at the front but it is also an informal term for an idle layabout - ‘scum.  Such a title immediately creates a scene in which colloquial language can mirror the real voice of the ordinary soldier. The stiffsand the Hunare slang terms for the dead and the enemy, the two things which might have been expected to crazethe exhausted soldier. The medical officer is referred to as ‘the Doc’ who reflects the ignorance surrounding shell shock at the time. In the penultimate line Owen uses alliteration with the well-whiskiedlaugh to highlight the drunken heartlessness of the doctor and his utter disregard for the situation. Because of the ambiguity surrounding this ‘dead-beat’ soldier, his actual problems and his eventual fate, the tone becomes more and more dispassionate as the poem progresses; with the introduction of the cynical attitudes of others.

However it is ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ which is seen even today as one of the most successful and controversial war poems ever written. The poem objects to Rupert Brooke’s or Jesse Pope’s jingoistic verse and people’s willingness to accept propaganda writing, despite how truthful it actually was. He wrote the poem during his stay in Craiglockhart, and comments in a letter he wrote to his mother; ‘Here is a gas poem, done yesterday…the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and right to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!’ The title is obviously ironic based on what we know about Owen’s views of war, with an aim to not so much induce pity but rather to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious. Such were Owen’s feelings so great against writers such as Jesse Pope who still believed war to be belonging to this stereotype that many record the poem being written directly to her. This is reinforced in the ‘you’ which he addresses in Line 17, which although of course could be a collective audience is most likely to be Jesse Pope herself, who’s beliefs epitomised the glorification of a war which Owen despised. In terms of structure the poem comprises of four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure. In Stanza 1 the scene is set as the soldiers are expressed limping back from the front; a horrifying image expressed through both simile and metaphor. The young men are compared to old beggars and hags; a cruel, bitter paradox. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. The use of the words ‘distant rest’ infer an ambiguity in the ‘rest’ that they seek; perhaps the death which Charles Sorley wanted. ‘Coughing’ echoes itself later in the poem, as the imagery of gas shells dropping ‘softly’ suggest a menace stealthy and devilish. In Stanza Two the poem focuses and shifts itself onto one man who couldn't get his gas helmet on in time. The use of the word ‘ecstasy’ can be seen to describe the man’s confused mental state and a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied solely with one idea. Lines 12-14 describe this induction of gas as an underwater metaphor for drowning. ‘Floundering’ fills the mind with an image of a writhing victim as it fills gruesome implications as Owen introduces himself into the action through witnessing his comrade dying in agony. The poem continues in Stanza 3 which can be seen as the Aftermath of the poem as Owen takes on a new perspective in that of the recurring nightmare that has been with him forever since that moment of his ‘floundering’ friend. The haunting flares in stanza 1 foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, ‘plunges at me’ before ‘my helpless sight,’ an image Owen will not forget and one that many soldiers did experience and which changed them irreversibly for the rest of their lives. The final stanza see’s Owen making a direct attack on those who do not know the real situation of the war back at home and who uphold the war's continuance unaware of its realities. He tries to bring his own ‘smothering dreams’ to educate others in the true harsh reality of the war which show life as the victim and soldier of a war; rather than simply an inanimate cog in the war effort.

When contrasting Jesse Pope’s ‘The Call’ with ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ the only clear similarity between the two is that they are both being used to reflect their respective poets mind and feelings regarding the topic of war. With Pope, the audience she targets is that of young men and can be seen as keen to support the war effort and be used as a recruitment strategy. Meanwhile in Owen’s view, war is horrific - and certainly his experiences in war have stayed with him throughout his life. His poem is actually directed ‘to Jesse Pope’ but this could be interpreted as more or less of a metaphor for the ignorant public regarding the war in his mind. Pope’s poem was highly successful and helped recruit millions to be part of the war effort but this is a direct paradox with the equally successful ‘Dulce et decorum est’ because they are polar opposites in how they describe the war.  Moreover the use of the latin dulce’ (sweet) usually used as a pro war adjective is effective in gaining attention to his anti war views as it turns the statement on its head in a bitter irony.

[2] Screenshot of a Belgium documentary taken 10 years after the end of the war

[4] (Below) Soldaten im Kampfstand 1915

[5] (Above) Wolfgang Filzinger (center) carrying his tripod at the Pontfaverger railway station in March 1915.

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