Wednesday, 11 November 2015

How the War Poets Defined the Great War III

Sophie Whitehead presents the final part 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 Friendship of Owen and Sassoon

Although strictly speaking both met at Craiglockhart the beginning to their meeting has to be seen to have come from Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves who fought alongside Sassoon in 1915 and was the person who helped get Sassoon into the hospital in order to avoid mental institutionalisation following Sassoon’s testament against the war. Sassoon's outlook on war was soon one of bitterness and resentment so he threw himself completely and utterly into the outlook that he would die in the trenches. However this was not the case. Sassoon returned home a military hero something he never expected or wanted. He issued on June 15th, 1917, a formal statement in wilful defiance of military authority, questioning the Governments motives for continuing the war and refusing to fight further. Graves, also in England serving as a military instructor, supported a medical boards decision to classify Sassoon as suffering from shell shock. On July 23 he arrived at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, far enough away from London to remove the troublesome poet from public attention.[1] Here, Sassoon met Owen who too was suffering from the mental incapabilities of war. Owen was significantly younger and less established as a poet compared to Sassoon but what began as only a hero worship soon became a great friendship with Owen commenting in a letter back home, Sassoon to be ‘the greatest friend I have.’ Sassoon aided Owen on much of his work, including one of his most famous ‘Anthem of Doomed Youth.’ Sassoon had an enormous impact on the promotion of many of the poets of the time and helped establish the work of poets who were unable to survive the war. He would prove instrumental in the posthumous publication of Owen’s (who died seven days before the armistice) collected poetry in 1920, and that of Isaac Rosenberg in 1937.

However whatever your opinions on the war were, one distinctive thing had certainly changed following November 1917; the view of war. The horror and brutality of the world overseas on the trenches removed older traditional poets; Conan Doyle, Kipling and Thomas Hardy from being the only war perspective available. These poets who had traditionally portrayed war in a lyrical, romantic way saw an embrace of a gritty realism which Sassoon had helped to establish and which would directly influence future literature and poetry of the 20th century in the future.  It has mainly been through the poems written by the canonical poets mostly Owen and Sassoon that the crueler side of war has become known, as the work of some poets began to be prioritised while others were neglected. Today it is assumed that Brooke represents the pre-war world of innocence and youth before the carnage of modern warfare caused the anger and cynicism that characterise the poetry of Owen and Sassoon.

However recent anthologies have began to challenge this ‘canon of the First World War’ by questioning the complete honesty and truth behind what poets such as Owen and Sassoon seek to prove - claiming the existence of other voices, approaches and poetic styles prove that the emotions expressed by Owen and Sassoon did not always mirror those felt by the majority of the soldiers. It may be seen then in fact that this ‘experience’ writers such as Owen speak of was not the experience felt by every soldier that fought. As [2]Jay Winter writes; ‘individual memories fade away, but cultural representations endure.’ Therefore the reader has to bear in mind that when studying the Great War, it is important to adapt a stance as least bias way as possible and to remember that the soldiers story and recollection of the war is not the only story of the war poets.

‘Shell Shock’ amongst Soldiers

Both Owen and Sassoon suffered from this syndrome. Unknown in the times of the Great war, modern estimates show that over 350,000 soldiers suffered from this detrimental illness. Wilfred Owen himself was diagnosed but returned to France where he would never return from war and died seven days before the armistice was reached. By the end of the war a further 20,000 were still suffering from this illness yet 80% of shell shock victims were never able to return to military duty.

Officers suffered some of the worst symptoms because they were called upon to repress their emotions to set an example for their men and because of this war neurosis was four times higher among these than among the regular soldiers.

However shell shock was not all bad and in the long term provided a powerful impetus for change to the mental health care system and an understanding of the detriments war could cause a person far before it was known. The fact that such a dishabilitating disease could affect such healthy young men, who were the nation’s heroes shocked the general public; many of whom still viewed the war in a triumphant light. This showed that anyone could break down, if placed under enough stress. However despite the strong movement for reform in the end, it was only in 1930 that the Mental Treatment Act made provision for voluntary treatment at outpatient clinics, providing the mentally afflicted with an alternative to the asylum. The long gap between the armistice and this Act shows that mental health was not a strong priority for the government. Shell shocked veterans benefitted from special clinics, but many also experienced considerable difficulties in claiming pensions for psychological injury. Other parts of the mental health care system lacked resources, and civilians with mental health problems were neglected.

In terms of dealing with mental health many doctors tried varieties of treatment strategies; some far more severe than others - the most common being electroshock treatment in which the patient would undergo a series of severe electric shocks in hopeful order that they would become rehabilitated quickly. The most famous doctor to cast such experiments was Dr Lewis Yealland, whose experiments are largely documented in the novel ‘Regeneration.’ In fact it is ironic that the most agonising episode to read in the whole novel is not set in the trenches but in the ‘electrical room’ of a London hospital, where Rivers watches Dr Lewis Yealland administering frequent and agonising electrical shocks to a patient who has been made mute by his experiences at the front. The terrified soldier must utter words to get the torture to stop. An author's note at the end of the novel assures us that Dr Yealland existed and that he detailed his ghastly methods in his own book. In reality a variety of treatments were used at Craiglockhart. and Pat Barker draws on ideas from William Rivers view of psychoanalysis and helped popularise Sigmund Freud’s work with his use of the 'talking cure’.

Another's whose ideas were widely renown were that of Arthur Brock. A classic example of altered propaganda being used to reach a popular ideal that shell shock victims could recover from their illness far quicker than in reality they could, Brock filmed shell shock victims home from the war as a before and after footage attempted to portray their quick recovery. With work funded in fact directly from the Medical Research Committee and Pathe cameramen, he recorded soldiers who suffered from intractable movement disorders as they underwent treatment at several psychiatric and disability hospitals across the country. As one of the earliest UK medical films, Hurst’s efforts drew inspiration from the official documentary of the Battle of the Somme made in 1916. Hurst was alert to the wider appeal of the motion picture and saw an opportunity to position himself in the postwar medical hierarchy. Many ‘before treatment’ shots were openly reenacted for the camera as Hurst openly used deception as a therapeutic measure. On the basis that the ends justified the means, the Medical Committee defended this procedure as ethical. Claims made of ‘cures’ in the film and associated publications by Hurst were challenged by other doctors treating shell shock. The absence of follow-up data and evidence from war pension files suggested that Hurst may have overstated the effectiveness of his methods. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in the film that chronic cases could be treated in a single session had a powerful resonance. The production of ‘War Neuroses’ in 1917 was the first motion picture to document the medical changes in the UK and to document the changes made by the patients. His ‘miracle’ treatments meant that he was somehow able to cure 90% of shell shocked soldiers in just one session. The most famous of these cases was Private Percy Meek who had been driven almost mad during a massive bombardment of the Western Front so that when he first came under Hurst's care, he'd regressed into an infant state and could only simply rest in a wheel chair. Gradually Meek recovered the physical functions he'd lost, and returned to normality under Hurst's tutelage. Arthur Hurst’s son later commented on the effectiveness of his father’s treatments, who although overstated still did achieve fantastic results. He speaks that ‘the main work was occupational therapy’ and that ‘these soldiers, who had been shell shocked, had lost vital faculties, like walking, speaking and so on, were given jobs to do here.’ He continues; ‘This was interspersed with intensive therapy sessions. My father... was head of a team, but he was the guiding genius here. He cured these cases by means of persuasion and hypnotism.’

Women in war: A Changing Society - Pre war women

World War One saw the world change greatly in all accounts. However one of the largest changes it saw was the role of the pre-war woman turned on its head. In the works of both E.M Forster (1879-1970) and D.H Lawrence (1885-1930), two prominent pre-war writers the changing role of women was one of speculation and investigation.

Both firstly evaluated the changing of the landscapes brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Forster explored this highly in his novel ‘Howards End’ (1910) which highlights the importance of the ‘real things’ that make life special - not the trivialities. For Forster, only personal relations; the landscape that surrounds him; the typical culture of a British society are what make life worth preserving. The novel seeks to argue that stereotypes and unnecessary prejudices are dangerous and should be avoided. The constant refrain ‘Germans of the dreadful sort’ and ‘England and Germany are bound to fight’ act as a possible glimpse into the future of the war that would follow. Everytime the refrain is made, the threat gets that little bit more real.  Similarly for Lawrence, the changing world and the detriment on the environment the Industrial Revolution was causing was of particular concern however his novel ‘Sons and Lovers’ (1913) approached these worries from a different angle. In his novels, the landscape that once surrounded the beautiful cities is changed and haunted by the process of industrialisation - perhaps reflecting the exact same views of the mining people of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire where Lawrence grew up. His characters in his novels grow culturally to move away from the small towns that withhold them and escape to the larger cities, and even abroad to approach a more diverse approach on life. His characters; Paul Morel, for example (the central protagonist to ‘Sons and lovers’) refuses to join the life of a miner and instead tries to make a reputation as an artist. Likewise in ‘Women in Love’ (written during the war itself) one of the principal daughters welcomes the life of a painter, over the monotony of her life before. Lawrence, much like Forster, deeply stresses the need for continuity of the British landscape so whilst the turning millennium brought promises of a newly industrialised life free from as much manual labour, it also brought deep doubts on how a country could cope with new infrastructure and change. This continuity of the British landscape is seen as a potent symbol into both authors works.

However whilst both stress a worry about a changing climate, the topic both most highly explored is the changing role of women. Not only do they see a change in the emancipation of women but rather a world which opened itself up with new hopes and dreams for all. Thus, whilst worries about a newly industrialised Britain were arise - so too did it bring a literary perception of the opportunities that were available now for all; not simply just in terms of the Suffragette and the Vote but also for self-development and conquest.

Referring back to ‘Howards End’ Forster explores a changing in perspective between the old and the new; whilst the elder in the novel are happy to live by the rules they have abided their entire lives, the younger seek a fresh perspective. A clear example; Helen Schmugel at the end of the novel, becomes a single mother with no wish to marry despite condemnation but to simply bring the child up on her own, alone.

[3]In terms of propaganda that was abundant at the time, much saw the women simply as a useful medium in the persuasion for sending their husbands and lovers off to war. Means of posters and publications were great and one of the most important means of spreading the government word to enlist.  The pre war standard that British woman were to be defined by the epitome of grace and poise whilst the man was the brave and heroic soldier who would defend all was blurred irrevocably by the demands of the Great War. Of course the government wanted the highest level of security and to be protected from the fear of a German invasion at all costs; and to fight this the need for men in war was vital but women slowly refused to be simply the tool which would make them go; they wanted an active part in the war effort themselves. The governments propaganda portrayed women as the ‘sweethearts’ to the soldiers and centred the mens wish to fight, if not for his country; but for his ‘love.’ This is most commonly reminded in the other of war posters ‘What did YOU do in the Great War, Daddy?’ Linked with this was the Suffragette campaign of the ‘White Feather’ which sought to shun the men into enlisting using the medium of guilt. Suffragettes seized on this to argue that women active in the war effort, via whatever means they could be were more worthy of citizenship than male pacifists or conscientious objectors. Women showed themselves to be able to balance not only a time consuming and often dangerous job but also to still be conscientious mothers.[4]

Whether the world liked it or not; women’s standard roles were being blurred by wartime demands. In propaganda they were portrayed as gentle, unguarded home-makers, playing on the idea of them as objects of men’s affections whilst at the same time as resilient, active participants in the war effort. The Editor of ‘Women of the Empire’ foresaw a more peaceful world, run on women’s terms and it was without a doubt that the status of women had fundamentally changed.

The government now had another problem on their hands. Whilst trying to portray women as docile creatures for many a year before with a life that was simply controlled by the man she married, they were now a most valuable and needed asset to help the war effort at home and away as nurses or factory workers and needed to be portrayed in a changed way in order to encourage work. Women began seeking opportunities in this new work which had before been principally reserved for men. Jessie Pope’s poem War Girls lists a number of everyday roles undertaken by women as the war evolved:

            There’s the girl who clips your ticket for the train,

            And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,

            There’s the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,

            And the girl who calls for orders at your door.

            Strong, sensible and fit,

            They’re out to show their grit

            And tackle jobs with energy and knack.

            The tone is jaunty and confident.

The last three lines mirror the nimble qualities required of front-line troops as women are compared and contrasted to the trials and tribulations faced on the front line. Pope ignores any suggestion that they are not capable of performing such tasks and by comparing the women as merely ‘the girl’ she categorises all ages to an infancy which shows that even the youngest members of the women working do their job. Pope goes on to state that women have been liberated by these opportunities where the tone compares women who can easily ‘act like a man.’

            No longer caged and penned up

            and that their commitment is not some short-lived affair:

            They’re going to keep their end up and deliver what they have taken on in the long term.

            There’s the motor girl who drives a heavy van,

            There’s the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,

            There’s the girl who cries, ‘All fares, please!’ like a man,

            And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.

This links to actual events. By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. Many women were enthralled to finally be able to receive a decent salary; (albeit still significantly less than that which the men earned) but a chance to contribute in a working society all the same.

D.H Lawrence himself comments on the role of women, in the interchanging periods when men went to war, in his short story ‘Tickets Please’ (1919) which describes the girls who took over the roles of ticket collectors on the trams in Nottingham.

This, the most dangerous tram-service in England, as the authorities themselves declare,    with pride, is entirely conducted by girls, and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or by delicate young men, who creep forward in terror. The girls are fearless young hussies. In            their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer. With a tram packed with howling colliers, roaring hymns downstairs and a sort of antiphony of obscenities upstairs, the lasses are perfectly at their ease. They pounce on the youths who try to evade their    ticket-machine. They push off the men at the end of their distance. They are not going to be done in the eye--not they. They fear nobody--and everybody fears them.

 Women in War Literature

 The assumption is commonly that all war literature only came from the men; because they were the only ones directly at the front that could report back. However this is very much not the case.

One of the documented examples of prose against this was Vera Brittain’s autobiography

‘A Testament of Youth’ which established itself as part of the canon of the First World War era. There are often varied debates over whether a ‘canon’ (a literary term generally relating to a piece of writing that can be used to sum up the literary bias of an era) is a fair way of analysing an era in terms of actual content due to the fact that often texts that have not found themselves on a canonical list are somehow less important in portraying an ideal. This is again not the case. Oppressed from her early youth with ideas that she would have to marry to make a way for herself in the world; It was then that she realised that war wasn’t the glorious adventure many young men thought it to be. Afterwards she became strongly - and famously - associated with the peace movement, to which she was committed for the rest of her life. ‘It was very hard to believe that not far away men were being slain ruthlessly.... The destruction of men, as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilisation.’
She shone a light on a part of the war which little at the time seemed to believe.

In fact many females took to the medium of poetry or novels to express their emotions on the war which was dividing society; the pacifists versus the zeitgeist of war, the return of a disfigured soldier - a war hero or a monster etc and the study of much of it actually portrays some very interesting dimensions to the war. Sadly, most anthologies contain little work by women during the war as the common concept is that because they were not directly inflicted to the front line, their ideas are of less importance. The publication of Catherine Reilly’s anthology ‘Women’s poetry and the verse of the First World War’ (1981) expressed an intent frustration of not being able to share the experiences the soldiers went through; not in a selfish way but simply so that she could sympathise fully with what they went through. Women proved that they could handle the blood and gore of war through their actions as nurses and through the varying incidents that would happen at the dangerous factories where they otherwise enrolled. The poem seeks to defy the stereotype that men were the only ones affected by the war and the difficulty of the divide between the ‘men that march away’ and the women left at home. Within this anthology sits Nora Bomford’s poem ‘Drafts:’

            Waking to darkness; early silence broken

            By seagull’s cried, and something undefined

            And far away. Through senses half-awoken,

            A vague enquiry drifts into one’s mind.

            What’s happening? Down the hill a movement quickens

            And leaps to recognition round the turning –

            Then one’s heart wakes, and grasps the fact, and sickens –

            ‘Are we down-hearted’…’Keep the home fires burning’.

            They go to God-knows-where, with songs of Blighty,

            While I’m in bed, and ribbons in my nightie.

Bombford exploits the triviality of her condition ‘in bed…in my nightie’ whilst the soldiers are away. This image of women at home was one many held, most notably by Siegried Sassoon in a ‘Soldiers Declaration’ when he challenged the ‘callous competence’ of women at home who ‘have the power to end’ the war. The bathos at the end of the poem and the childlike rhyme in ‘blighty’ and ‘nightie’ empathise an immediate sense of frustration and pent up anger in not being able to fight like the men.  For many writing about the war however the main themes were the patience, grief and undesirable loss that went into such a treacherous war. Women wrote both from their own perspectives but also from perspectives that they could only imagine, as they tried to put themselves into the soldiers feet fighting at the front.

Women also used novels as a medium for their thoughts and feelings, most famously Irene Rathbones ‘We were that young,’ (1932) which were usually published around ten years after being written. These novels often began with a joyous sense of optimism surrounding a war which was originally only meant to be a quick and easy victory. The changing in environment created the perfect atmosphere for Vera Brittain and her family to call themselves feminists. It was this feminist influence which rivalled the large spirit of chivalry that supported the beginning of the war, with a battle cry instead of ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War.’

Indeed out of this began one of the most renowned 20th century feminist novelists the world has ever seen; Virginia Woolf who shared the pacifist views of many of the Bloomsbury Group of Writers and Authors. Woolf, described this herself in her novels ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘A Room Of Ones Own’ (1929) which shone a light on the impact of war for women.

Shall we lay the blame on war? When the guns fired in 1914 did the faces of men and women show so plain in each others eyes that romance was killed? Certainly it was a shock (to women in particular with their illusions about education and so on) to see the faces of our rules in the light of shell-fire. So ugly they looked - German, English, French - so stupid.’

Woolf bases her most famous novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’ upon the events that happen purely around one day. She begins her day ‘decid[ing] to buy the flowers herself,’ a trivial note yet the novel seeks to explore a multitude of far darker motifs and themes throughout. It is clear that Woolf views the effects of World War One as lasting both on society and Britain itself. It was seen as a violent reality check that a country that was as powerful as Britain had been, could have fallen so quickly from such a large world power. For the first time England were vulnerable at home, on their own land and although the Allies technically won the war, the effects from it lasted far beyond 1918. The extent of devastation varied not just from the damaged landscapes and scenery but to the people themselves; whole communities had been split in two with the introduction of such a war. Because of this, throughout ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ Septimus, Clarissa and Peter all struggle to find an outlet for communication as well as adequate privacy, and the balance between the two is difficult for all to attain. Clarissa in particular struggles to open the pathway for communication and her try to constantly throw parties is seen as a mere attempt to draw people together. At the same time, she feels shrouded within her own reflective soul and thinks the ultimate human mystery is how she can exist in one room and everyone else can exist separately in theirs. Woolf describes how the war has changed people’s ideas of what English society should be, creating a divide in understanding for those who continue to support traditional British society and those who hope for continued change. The novels tries to show how difficult meaningful connections were to make in this disjointed postwar world, no matter what efforts the characters put forth. The death of Septimus at the end of the novel comes as both a desperate, but legitimate, act of communication.

In 1923, when ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ takes place, an air of failure surrounds the old establishment and the end of the war has seen a violent change into how the Empire is viewed both abroad and at home; its oppressive values are nearing their end. Those citizens who still champion English tradition, such as Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton, are stereotyped as old and dated. Aunt Helena, with her glass eye (perhaps an inadvertent symbol of her reluctance to see the empire's disintegration), is turning into an artefact. The old empire faces an imminent demise, and the loss of the traditional and familiar social order leaves the English at loose ends. The thought of death and the harrowing reality of its closeness haunts all the characters throughout the novel, in fact they lie constantly beneath the surface of everyday life. Because of this awareness, even the most mundane events and interactions are made meaningful. At the very start of her day and the novel, when she goes out to buy flowers for her party, Clarissa remembers a moment in her youth when she foreshadows that a terrible event would occur one day and she repeats a line from a funeral song in Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ constantly as the day goes on: ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.’ The line celebrates death as a comfort after a difficult life. Clarissa has of course experienced several deaths; both that of her father and mother but also the calamity of war. Thus the emblem of death strives very naturally in her thoughts, and the line from ‘

Cymbeline,’ along with Septimus’s suicidal embrace of death at the end of the novel, ultimately helps her to be at peace with her own mortality. At the end of the novel, she reflects on his suicide: Somehow it was her disaster—her disgrace.” Although she partly accepts responsibility, linked in with her acceptance that England is no longer the ruling world power it once was, suggests that everyone is in some way complicit in the oppression of others.


 In this project which involves a range and series of essays, I have attempted to critically analyse a selection of novels and poetry, written from a range of authors to attempt to gain a more accurate picture of the difference between how the government used media and propaganda to inform on the First World War with that which was supplied through literature. I have held an unbiased viewpoint throughout investigating and writing this project in order to portray my findings of the First World War in the fairest light possible.

Firstly I have attempted to ‘debunk’ a series of myths surrounding the First World War in order to provide a framework for the topics which I have then handled throughout the project. This has also provided the opportunity for an audience which might have little knowledge of the First World War to have a basis of understanding before I tackled more incredulous issues. I have then gone on to look at a selection of novels and poems in close detail which act as my informed literature in which to compare to the medias portrayal of the war. Literature has far fewer restrictions compared to that shown via national television or radio so therefore it is very interesting to analyse; especially when you are handling original material from the battlefield. I have found highly interesting how this material differs from that which the government supplied and how the government manipulated information to suit its own purposes. This could be through from forged VCR, and the early documentation of the ‘the Battle of the Somme’ in 1916 to Kitchener’s posters for recruitment. Propaganda played on not just what the public wanted to see but also, albeit now dated, values of bravery, honour and loyalty to ones country. Soldiers that entered the First World War were unprepared for what they would meet overseas in battle and this lack of preparation unfortunately led to the development of severe shell shock in many. Throughout my exploration I have sought to seek the truth about many commonly misled myths even to this day about the war and to explore the key issues to the soldiers such as the susceptibility of shell shock and how much was actually known about this condition in 1914 compared to now. On top of this I have compared and contrasted both propaganda and literature written on the Western Front with that taken at home, documenting action on both sides to try and obtain a clearer picture.

My inspiration into creating such a project drove from a passion I have had to unearth myths about the First World War, which was the first prominent ‘total’ war and would define the stereotype for the future of modern wars to follow. Unfortunately, due to word count restraints I have not been able to include everything that I would have liked to upon beginning this project however I do hope it remains to the avid historian an account of how closely linked the study of literature can be as a medium for conveyance and a source of information about British past, which a modern day audience must learn from and bring into the future.

[1] Picture (below) - Wilfred Owen (Left) Robert Graves (Right)

[2]Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War,(Page 10)

[3] (right) Appeal by the Imperial Maritime League sees a poster which can be compared as almost an identical male copy of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster for men, by Kitchener.

[4] (below) Image from 'The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting' by Arnold Bennett, Colliers Weekly 1914

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