Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Dead

Not a cheery title for a blog post, I know, but it’s something that’s been on my mind recently, since I heard that the government had recently released wills made by hundreds of ordinary soldiers from Britain and its overseas possessions, who knew their lives were at risk.  The wills are being digitised by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service and should all be available on-line in time for next year's centenary.  Ironically, the Ministry of Justice only became aware of their existence as a result of a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The contents make salutary reading.  Even early in the war, it seems, reality soaked quickly into the psyche of those who had recently arrived on the Western Front and were beginning to see what they had let themselves in for.  Most of them were young men who, under normal circumstances, would not have been thinking about death at all.  Many were unmarried, and left such property as they owned to their mothers, recording their last wishes on simple forms issued for the purpose by far-sighted officialdom.

Some were accompanied by letters to their families, and they make heartbreaking reading, especially when viewed in the soldiers' own handwriting.  "Mother dear, do have courage," wrote 19-year-old Joseph Ditchburn   "I will be all right."  He died two months later; the letter was never delivered.    

"This war is going to be worse than I thought," wrote 26-year-old Harry Lewis-Lincoln, when it dawned on him that it was not going to be all over by Christmas.  Meanwhile, a chaplain wrote to the widow of footballer Albert Butler to tell her that her late husband had commented, on having his leg blown to bits: "No more football for me."

Siegfried Sassoon seems to have felt an affinity with the dead, almost a communion with them, both during the latter part of his own military service and after the war had ended.  “I stood with the dead”, he says, as though to show solidarity with his late comrades.  It is hard to see how anyone who had lost the number of friends, comrades and acquaintances Sassoon had lost in the course of the war could feel otherwise.  For him, at that stage, they were still living, breathing men whose faces and voices were fresh in his mind.

“To any dead officer” he addresses the words, "Cheero.  I wish they'd killed you in a decent show."  Thus the blackest humour links military incompetence with death, in a manner typical of his war poetry.

William Rivers, who treated Sassoon at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917, later included him, anonymously, as an example in a study he wrote on Conflict and Dream.  Sassoon's main symptoms, in medical terms, were the nightmares and hallucinations he suffered, an effect common among soldiers suffering from "neurosis".  Sassoon's dreams featured the dead in no uncertain manner.  Rivers diagnosed this as a "repression of war experience" and Sassoon felt that talking it through with the psychiatrist helped him enormously.  He subsequently wrote about his feelings in poems like "Survivors", in which he speaks of "haunted nights" and "the ghosts of friends".  He knew he was not alone in being obsessed with the dead, and his ability to get his feelings out in the open using the written word was cathartic as well as resulting in great poetry.

The BBC's recent (and excellent) production, The Wipers Times, a dramatised rendition of the history of the troops’ magazine edited by Captain Fred Roberts from 1916 to 1918, avoided overt references to death, and that was the whole point.  Everyone in the trenches knew their days were numbered; few had any confidence in their survival.  They soldiered on, literally, making life bearable by joking about death.  Poets too were mocked: "An insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other, absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse."  The writer couldn't possibly have seen Sassoon in action - could he?


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