Saturday, 2 July 2016

Testimonies of Trauma: The Somme and other Battles in World War 1

By Rose Morris

Military History has described much of the four months of Somme battles in detail. The records of the regiments attacked and the weaponry used, the comprehensive casualty lists are always used to describe the horrors of the First World War. They explain to us what happened in facts and figures but do not tell the real human story and the conditions in which these men fought. They fail to describe the daily life of the soldier, or of the landscape in which he lived, fought and got injured or died. They do not tell of his family, the loved ones he left behind. It is only from the letters that were sent while alive that we get an insight into their human state, their thoughts and fears, their plight or their reasons for being there.

To learn more about this we are fortunate that the interpretation by poets and writers who enlisted, soldiers letters to their loved ones, artists such as Paul Nash, photographers like Fr. Frank Browne, of Titanic fame, and the diaries of survivors to enlighten us on this aspect of war as they present their observations and feelings in a more emotional and human way.

Over the past one hundred years, so much great writing has been sourced from World War 1 testimonies. Donegal writer Patrick McGill’s novel, The Great Push. Sean O’Casey’s play, The Silver Tassie. How Many Miles to Babylon, Jennifer Johnston’s novel.  Frank McGuiness’s play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.  A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry’s novel.

The Silver Tassie by Sean O'Casey

They tell this story against a background of destruction, pungent smells and of mud and slime all of which appears to be ingrained in the mind of survivors, never to forgotten. Personal reports and stories of World War 1 describes men living like animals beneath the ground in trenches and dug-outs in a ‘world of mud’ and often makes use of words such as burrow and crawl, a language more associated with wildlife than human beings. Patrick McGill served as a stretcher-bearer on the Western Front, remarked “a soldier came crawling towards us on his belly, looking for all the world like a gigantic lobster that had escaped from its basket."

Often highlighted in these expressions is the soldier’s struggle with his conscience on his true reason for being there and his thoughts on the futility of war.

This can be more evident in the work of two Irish writers, Thomas Kettle and Francis Ledwidge for  they have also had to come to terms with fighting on behalf of a country which has historically been perceived as the enemy and both of them had been Irish Volunteers actively seeking independence alongside the poets and writers of the Celtic Revival who were among these executed in the 1916 Rising.
Thomas Kettle

In his poem, To my Daughter Betty, A Gift From God,  Kettle leaves very little doubt as to his feelings and his fear that he would not survive the war. It is dated ‘In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 1916’. He was killed in the battlefield in Ginchy four days later.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead

Died not for flag, nor King nor Emperor 

But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

In a letter to his brother Kettle wrote,
“I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement."
Francis Ledwidge

It is a striking contrast that Ledwidge’s war poetry, inspired by his memories of the natural habitat of his native County Meath, still retains a pastoral flavour while all around him was 'the muddy ranks of war’.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo's light,
While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo's voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,.
 Before his death, Ledwidge wrote to the poet, Katherine Tynan:
"If I survive the war I have great hopes of writing something that will live. If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired." 

He is, in fact, well remembered for his poem written after the execution of his friend Thomas McDonagh;
He shall not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Ledwidge was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres in 1917 and is buried in the cemetery at Artillery Wood at Boesinghe.

Kettle and Ledwidge have left behind a powerful testimony of their wartime experience as Irish nationalists in the British army. They speak to us on behalf of the many for whom we have no written record. They saw themselves engaged in a fight in Ireland's name and for Ireland's cause.

It is perhaps not wholly surprising that the writings of Kettle and Ledwidge have been overlooked. In Ireland. Their sacrifice was long overshadowed in modern Irish history which mainly dwelt on the General Post Office in 1916 rather than the Western Front.

Another interesting contrast is to be found in the literary responses from W.B. Yeats, who was not involved in military action yet he defines this particular period in Irish history and reflects on the dilemma of Irish men fighting in the British Army.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love.

© Rose Morris
Rose Morris was born near Dungannon, in Co. Tyrone. Having retired from a career in Art and Design Education in Greater Manchester she now spends more time pursuing her creative interests and involvement in community projects in Manchester and County Tyrone.
She co-founded the Manchester Irish Writers group with Alrene Hughes in 1994.
Her continued involvement and sharing within that group has greatly enhanced the development of her own writing.
Her short stories, monologues and poetry have been included in the Manchester Irish Writers’ published collections; The End of the Rodden, The Retting Dam, Stone of the Heart, Drawing Breath and Changing Skies.

To find out more about MIW's Somme 100 Commemoration, please click here.

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