The Great War (1914-1918) - Episode 4: Slaughter

·The trenches - a world impossible to describe.
·Otto Dix: lice, rats, fleas, barbed wire, corpses. Representations of war in painting and poems.
·Submarine warfare and air raid on Allied cities.
·Eric von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff.
·1916: The Year of the Battles (Verdun, Jutland, Somme).
·Verdun – the twelth forths. Verdun as the Battle of France.
·The War of Attrition.
·Lord Kitcheneer's recruting campaign.
·Helen Thomas. Her diaries.
·The Battle of the Somme. 1st of July 1916. Sir Douglas Haig.
·The Battle of the Somme. The first war documentary.
·The Battle of the Somme. July-November 1916: front line.
·Siegfred Sassoon.
·Albert – The statue of the Virgin.
·The Trenches. The Rotation system.
·Vimy Ridge – Learning from the Somme.
·Passchendaele. Mud as the key element in representations of war and specifically WWI.
·Paul Nash. Sunset and Sunrise. The view from the trenches.

This episode is dedicated to the period called 'war of attrition', that moment when the war turned into a total slaughter between sides trying to bleed the enemy to death, instead of reaching a particular objective.

In the anthology, in the chapter related to this episode, we first see 'Before Action' by W. N. Hodgson, a poem whose form is that of a prayer or hymn; it is like the old monastic Vespers, the evening prayer said at sunset, but the form and metre is that of a hymn -written two days before the Battle of the Somme in which its writer became a casualty, it could also be seen as prophetic, as his own memorial-. Then we find 'Into Battle' by Julian Grenfell, that presents an introduction with an optimistic fervor illustrated by the quotation “Life is Color and Warmth and Light” that contrasts with the bleak statement “And he is dead who will not fight”; this is a poem where the speaker speculates of the happenings after the soldier’s demise and provides the reader with a fairly optimistic image including metaphors such as accompanying the Dog-Star constellation, speaking with the wind and listening to the owl’s call at night; but the tone in the poem presents a gentler version of death which can be perceived to be almost welcome. The next poem is 'Lights out' by Edward Thomas, where the author presents us the two sides of the same coin theme: sleep as rest, and sleep as death. And then we find 'I have a rendezvous with Death' by Alan Seeger, where we begin to see that soldiers know that being in the Front means that death is imminent; something which is deepened in 'Two Sonnets' by Charles Hamilton Sorley.
Suddenly, we see 'The Soldier' by Rupert Brooke, that seems a quite Manichean pro-patriotic poem, written as if the author were not disillusioned by the horrors of the war. The response to this poem was written by May Herschel-Clark: 'The Mother Written after reading Rupert Brooke's sonnet, 'The Soldier'', where we can see that the mournful elegiac tone of the poem is typical of the verse written to memorialize the sorrows of grieving mothers, but the conventions of the poetic form required a grateful acknowledgment of the son’s untimely death, received and offered up by the mother on the altars of a blind nationalism.
But the mood changes in 'I tracked a dead man down a trench' by W. S. S. Lyon, where the reader can experience what life in the trenches was like during that moment of the war. A fearful experience, as we can see in 'Ballad of the Three Spectres' by Ivor Gurney, where following a traditional ballad or song structure we are lead to confront the typical soldier’s anxiety about his unseen future and his fear of death. And following the series of poems about death, we can read 'The Question' by Wilfrid Gibson, a poem that is quite modern in its aesthetical proposal although it uses Georgian elements. Or 'The Soldier Addresses His Body' by Edgell Rickword, another poem that through its studied toughness, shows a great modernity and begins to show the feeling among soldiers that peace is the most important thing; as it happens in 'The Day's March' by Robert Nichols.
We see then the military view of life in 'Eve of Assault: Infantry Going Down to Trenches' by Robert Nichols, where soldiers achieve by means of military procedures a cleansing from "shame"; as in 'Headquarters' by Gilbert Frankau.

And then we find one of the most pessimistic poems in the section, the final lines of D. H. Lawrence's 'Bombardment' are the worst description of what we can call now everyday but then was hell each time the sun arose. But it gives the impression that life has changed forever in some way; as when we see H. Smalley Sarson's 'The Shell' and we read: "The brains of science, the money of fools/Had fashioned an iron slave/Destined to kill".

But then we move to the Front again and we could imagine what the Battle of the Somme could be by reading Richard Aldington's 'Bombardment', as by reading Ivor Gurney's 'On Somme' and seeing how a rising hysteria gets into the soldiers' feeling. And the sensation of dying as a group, as we can read in 'Before the Charge' by Patrick MacGill. Or the real sense of what it must have been like on the Western Front we can read in 'It's a Queer Time' by Robert Graves, in 'The Face' by Frederic Manning, or in 'Gethsemane' by Rudyard Kipling. And at that moment we find one of those poems that revolutionize the way of writing poems in the 20th century: 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen; although its scheme and most of its literary figures are quite predictable, its comparisons and above all the way of comparing soldiers to cattle are absolutely innovative.

After that, poems like W. J. Turner's 'The Navigators', Wilfred Owen's 'Spring Offensive' or Harold Monro's 'Youth in Arms III: Retreat' give us the feeling of trench warfare, where actions that yields both long famous glories and immemorial shames happen and becomes a place where death becomes absurd and life absurder.

Then we find one of the best poems of the 20th century: 'Dulce et Decorum est' by Wilfred Owen, where the poet uses a variety of powerful poetic devices in order to depict death in war as a brutal and horrifying experience and alliteration is used throughout the whole poem to draw the attention of the reader creating stark and confronting images within the reader's mind. Written as a response to Jessie Pope's 'The Call', the first line in the poem is probably one of the first lines in English Poetry, the striking simile of troops on a march is a powerful picture of the discomfort and lack of dignity experienced by the soldiers. The shocking description is marked with a tone of horror deepened with the triple description of the soldier's plight that transites from less to more specific. The sense of panic is made clear and the feeling of disorder is absolutely striking. Besides, the poem shows not only physical harm, but the psychological harm suffered through the event that has been told.

After that, we find two poetic visions of women on war. The first one is 'Field Ambulance in Retreat' by May Sinclair, that recounts the sight of an ox cart bringing out a new harvest of wounded bodies, and 'A Memory' by Margaret Sackville, where the poet is determined to testify or bear witness to the tru effects of war and it is important to remark how she mentions the way women are not spared by war.

The following poems show death and life in trenches in its more terrifying side; poems as Isaac Rosenberg's 'Dead Man's Dump' (with its religious allusions), Harold Monro's 'Youth in Arms IV: Carrion', F. W. Harvey's 'Prisoners', or Robert Graves's 'A Dead Boche' (taking the idea of war being glorious and putting it in terms of simple murder); Richard Aldington's 'Soliloquy II' (and his Romantic vision of death), Ivor Gurney's 'Butchers and Tombs', Herbert Asquith's 'The Volunteer', Rupert Brooke's '1914: The Dead', and John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' (with his pro-patriotic visions of war); the important poems 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' by Charles Hamilton Sorley (and its image of the dead transformed into ghosts) and 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen (with its skillfully presentation of reality in warfare and the painful truths that accompany war by using revision as a tool to both clarify his ideas and re-evaluate one of the central figures in the poem); this last poem, furthermore, is a curious contrast between the global vision of encounter between enemies the poem gives us and the real meeting between English and German happened in Christmas 1914.

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