Wednesday, July 8, 2015

World War Wednesdays: First World War Literature

     I always feel as though I never give enough attention, both on the blog and in my own work, to the First World War. This is certainly not for lack of interest, it's just that my area of focus obsession happens to be the Second World War. When I think about WWI, it registers as the most terrible and unimaginable event in modern history, and I find it difficult to be objective and not assign such strong emotions to its study. A lot of the time, I find it difficult to read the experiences of those involved, and the circumstances of its major events. However, I have found some great written works which have allowed me to make some connections and gain a deeper understanding, and I've decided to compile a few of my favorites in the hopes that they will do the same for you.

Canada At War by S. Bradley Gundy, 1919

Excerpt from the introduction to chapter one: "The Eve of the Storm in Canada" (5):
     "When, on August 4, 1914, the world's liberties, the existence of small nations, the mastery of the seas, the lordship of Europe, the dominance of the world, were thrown into a vast crucible of war, Canada, as a Dominion of the British Empire, was a prosperous community, with a contented people holding rich resources in fee for the future and building slowly but surely upon foundations which had been carefully laid and safeguarded. It was a new country, a young nationality, crude in some of its developments, clever and progressive in others, aggressively independent in all phases of life and thought."

This captures perfectly the image that I have in my mind of Canada at the time of the outbreak of the First World War. When it comes to historical literature I have always gravitated to the old, dusty, original accounts which employ strong and illustrious language in their descriptions of historical events (for example the writings of Winston Churchill). I feel that they combine great literature with historical facts to make truly artful and interesting works, which are two of my greatest interests.

The Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon 

Sassoon's poetry has been one of the most significant and enduring works for me both in terms of poetry and my understanding of the First World War. He experienced the war as an innocent, and his accounts of his experiences are painfully and articulately raw. I've narrowed it down to my two favorites:

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget. 

Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go. 

     Hopefully these excerpts from the works that I find poignant also mean something to you, and I apologize to all the WWI buffs if I don't always keep with that side of the theme. Thanks so much as always to those of you who take the time to read these posts!


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