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Literature of the First World War

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Chloé Buckley

on 25 August 2015

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Transcript of Literature of the First World War

Writing Conflict / Representing Trauma
Context: Total War
“… a war which is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued”
(Oxford English Dictionary).

The key features of a ‘total war’ are:

The collapse of restraint
The mobilization of all human and material resources

War Poetry
The Phases of War Poetry

Rupert Brooke
Siegfried Sassoon
Wilfred Owen
Eva Dobell

Poetry as Protest
Physical Trauma / Psychological Trauma
Secondary Trauma
The Role of Women and Female Poets

Trauma and Conflict: Literature of the First World War
What is the value of writing about conflict and attempting to voice the trauma of war in imaginative literature?

For writers at the time
war poetry
For later writers
literary rewritings

The Home Front

The Government controlled all aspects of civilian life, including information.
Many people at home, including many women, had little access to information about life in the trenches.
People at home suffered their own traumas, including grieving for family members killed overseas.

War Poets
A convenient, though somewhat diffuse, term referring primarily to the soldier–poets who fought in the First World War
- many died in combat.

Most of these writers came from middle-class backgrounds; many had been to public schools and served as officers at the front.

Hundreds of ‘war poets’ wrote and published their verse between 1914 and 1918, often capturing the initial mood of excitement and enthusiasm
- only a handful— largely those who wrote in protest— are read and admired today.

Style and Phases
‘The term war poets is rather convenient than accurate’
Edmund Blunden.

No one ‘war-poet style’; Nor one unified set of themes or messages
As a force for
/support for war
Glory, honour, patriotism, chivalry, masculinity
As a form of
, and direct communication
Expressing the truths behind war, coming to terms with the brutality of war

Anger, fear, sarcasm, directed often at military leaders
Poetry as a form of
Tribute, marking gratitude, loss, comradeship

Support / Propaganda:
Rupert Brooke
Rupert Chawner Brooke (3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) was an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War.
Anger and Protest:
Siegfried Sassoon
Brought up in a middle-class, very creative family. Went to Cambridge but left before he completed a degree. Lived as ‘a country gentleman’ – playing cricket, hunting, collecting books and writing poems. Wrote a declaration against the war that he asked to be read out in parliament. He was declared unfit for service (to avoid Court Marshall) and sent to Craiglockhart.

Reality, Trauma, Protest:
Wilfred Owen
Son of a railway clerk. Failed scholarship exam at University College, Reading. Enlisted 21 October, 1915. Arrived at the Somme, 1916.
January 1917 led his platoon into trenches
1 May diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia (shell-shock) – sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital. Killed on November 4th 1918 – one week before the Armistice.

"I am making this statement as an act of
wilful defiance
of military authority, because I believe that the War
is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it
. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation,
has now become a war of aggression and conquest
... I have seen and endured the
sufferings of the troops
, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be
evil and unjust
. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the
political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed
.... I believe that I may help to destroy the
callous complacency
with which the majority of
those at home
regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."

Eva Dobell
Dobell (1876 - 1963) was a nurse and is best known today for her occasional poems from the war period, which all describe wounded soldiers, their experiences, and their bleak prospects. "Night Duty," for instance, is cited as one of many poems by female war-poets and nurses that provide access to an experience rarely shared by male poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps the most frequently reproduced is "Pluck," especially on sites dedicated to the Great War.
The Soldier (1915)
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever 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 the 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.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Gas! Gas! Quick boys!-an ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the whites of his eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Glory of Women
You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
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 the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Night Duty
The pain and laughter of the day are done
So strangely hushed and still the long ward seems,
Only the Sister’s candle softly beams.
Clear from the church near by the clock strikes ’one’;
And all are wrapt away in secret sleep and dreams.

Here one cries sudden on a sobbing breath,
Gripped in the clutch of some incarnate fear:
What terror through the darkness draweth near?
What memory of carnage and of death?
What vanished scenes of dread to his closed eyes appear?
Rewriting the First World War
Thousands of these women, perhaps millions if one includes the women of Belgium, France, Germany and Russia, must have been heart-sore, but for the most part they were silent, especially at the beginning of the war. They had a
deep sense of loyalty to their men
and were
acutely aware of their sufferings and sacrifices
. Not for the world would they say anything which would seem to undervalue their men, or suggest that they were offered for a wrong or mistaken cause. So that, in backing their men in the war in which they were actually fighting,
many women seemed to be backing warfare itself
, although most probably they abhorred it. They were caught in the classic situation of women when their men are away at war.

Joan Montgomery

Why re-write the war?
Rethink the past to make the unthinkable accessible
Revisionist politics: give a voice to the silenced
Provide traumatic events with a narrative and therefore a meaning
To capture multiple perspectives
Acknowledge the power the past has on the present
Explore the emotional dimension of historical ‘facts’
Contrast public versions of history with personal accounts
Explore parallels between the past and the present
Regeneration -
the facts
W.H. Rivers – Psychiatrist, whose papers include:
Freud's psychology of the unconscious, 1917
The Repression of War Experience, 1919
Psychology and the War, 1919

Sassoon’s treatment at Craiglockhart Hospital is documented

Incidents described in the novel taken from first hand accounts of the trenches, including the eye-ball description (which can be found in Vera Brittain’s
Chronicle of Youth

'Fact' vs 'Fiction'
Barker is interested in the way history is non-linear and always interacting with the present.
Trauma, truth, the voice
Voicing trauma is the vital process of the novel

Thus, trauma is experienced as recollection, rather than as a primary incident.

But there needs to be a listener (Rivers)

The vital role of the listener is emphasized by making the doctor the central protagonist.
Past meets Present -
The Gulf War
The Accrington Pals: The Facts
the best remembered of the battalions raised in the early months of the First World War (in response to Kitchener's call for a volunteer army)
Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington enlisted together to form a battalion
In its first major action, the battalion suffered devastating losses in the attack on Serre on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
The losses were hard to bear - nearly everyone had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded.
104 men were accepted in the first three hours.
Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together
Total: 1,100 men.
Around half the battalion had been recruited from Accrington and District; the majority of the remainder had been raised in the neighbouring towns of Burnley, Chorley and Blackburn.
Of the 720 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing.
Fantasy and Dream -

May's trauma
May represses her desires for Tom

Repression leads to haunting as May re-lives Tom's death through dream

The play is concerned with the way repression itself causes trauma
The psychological attempt by an individual to repel one's own desires and impulses by excluding the desire from one's consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious.

Freud: ‘The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious’ Repression, 1915

Understanding the context and conditions (at home and in the trenches) is essential in understanding the literature of the first world war.

'War Poetry' is a diffuse term; there were (and are) conflicting voices about how the war should be represented.

Re-writing the war has a number of functions today
explores how the the past continues to affect the present
it allows writers give voice to the unspeakable (trauma)
imaginative license allows different truths to emerge than bare historical fact
it explores the psychological and secondary trauma of war, not simply the 'blood and mud' of the trenches

pastoral imagery
idealized England
immortal hero
- classical
death is purification

direct and accusatory address
idealism of 'home front' mocked
through archaic language
contrast with visceral horror
another perspective - not the trenches
contemplation rather than action
contrast stillness with pain
after-effects of trauma - psychologican as well as physical trauma

perspective of the viewer / the other - the importance of this other figure in accessing and expressing trauma
understanding that trauma is elusive - and not always visible or accessible

Secondary trauma - the trauma of the speaker
Craiglockhart Hospital features in Regeneration, Pat Barker (1991)
The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan (1979)
‘The wind went on rising all evening… it was wailing around the building, moaning down chimneys, snapping branches off trees with a crack like rifle fire… Sassoon, passing several of his “fellow breakdowns” in the corridor, thought they looked even more “mental” than usual.’

Barker, Regeneration, p. 127

Therefore she makes different use of her source material, not always presenting it "faithfully"
‘Autumn was asserting itself, and a gale got up that night. I lay awake listening to its melancholic surgings and rumblings as it buffeted the big building. The longer I lay awake, the more I was reminded of the troops in the line. There they were, stoically enduring their roofless discomfort while I was safe and warm. The storm sounded like a vast lament and the rain was coming down in torrents.’

Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, p. 31

In Sassoon's recollection, the memory evokes guilt at his failed duty and the men he has left behind; In Barker's version, the storm is symbolic for the power of the past itself to come unbidden into the present.
See - Anne Whitehead, 'Open to Suggestion'
Modern Fiction Studies
44 (1998)
‘The manifestations of a compulsion to repeat… exhibit to a high degree an instinctual character and… give the appearance of some ‘daemonic’ force at work.’
Beyond the Pleasure Principle

‘The affective power of the past clearly threatens to engulf all awareness of the present moment.’
Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Repression - - - Repetition
Past and Present
Commentary on political and social concerns of 1970s Britain
Thatcherism vs. Socialism (May vs. Tom)
'How much am I in this for myself and how much am I for other people?' Whelan
Realism: chaos, brutality, poor conditions, lack of resources and training

Physical trauma - visceral description

Difficulty of portraying the brutality - fumbling, clumsy, stumbling, flound'ring

Secondary Trauma - the survivor's helplessness, the witness

Psychological trauma - experienced as recollection, as haunting

Difficulty of voicing the trauma - non-verbal utterances

Addressing the Home Front - 'my friend' - political and moral message -'obscene', 'vile' 'innocent'

Countering patriotism and the language of patriotism that is disconnected from the reality of the war
The meanings and impact of the war still debated in the UK
opposing views on how it should be remembered
Two Modern Rewritings:


The Accrington Pals

Written in 1991
A novel, later a film
Psychological trauma - The Psychologist is the protagonist
Focus on the voice, on speaking speaking
Recollection not primary incident
Focuses on dreams and memories
Refers to present - The Iraq War
Written in 1979
A stage-play
Psychological and Secondary Trauma - focuses on those left at home
Female protagonist
Personal accounts versus public history
Dream sequences and fantasy intermingle with historical facts
Social commentary - Thatcherism

They'd almost finished when Prior shifted his position on the duckboards, glanced down, and found himself staring into an eye. Delicately, like somebody selecting a particularly choice morsel from a plate, he put his thumb and forefinger down through the duckboards. His fingers touched the smooth surface and slid before they managed to get a hold. He got it out, transferred it to the palm of his hand, and held it out towards Logan. He could see his hand was shaking,
but the shaking didn't seem to be anything to do with him.

'What am I supposed to do with this
?' He saw Logan blink and knew he was afraid. At last Logan reached out, grasped his shaking wrist, and tipped the eye into the bag. ‘Williams and me'll do the rest, sir. You go on back now.’ He shook his head. They spread the lime together, sprinkling it thickly along the firestep, throwing shovelfuls at a bad patch of wall. When at last they stood back, beating the white dust from the skirts of their tunics, he wanted to say something casual, something that would prove he was all right,
but a numbness had spread all over the lower half of his face.

Back in the dugout he watched people's lips move and was filled with admiration for them. There was a sense of joy in watching them, of elation almost. How complex those movements were, how amazing the glimpses of teeth and tongue, the movement of muscles in the jaw. He ran his tongue along the edges of his teeth, curved it back, stroked the ridged palate, flexed his lips, felt the pull of skin and the stretching of muscles in his throat. All present and correct, but
how they combined together to make sounds he had no idea

Chapter 9, Regeneration
'The argument for realism in war literature is that the facts must be presented as accurately and objectively as possible, so that the record cannot later be distorted. Formal decoration and imaginative license have no place in this strict regard for truth. But ... "Facts," "Accuracy," "Objectivity," "Truth," and "Realism" are infinitely contestable concepts.'

Kate McLoughlin,
The Literature of War
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