Tuesday, 1 December 2015

French Leave

The expression "to take French leave" is no longer widely used. It was first recorded in the 18th century and essentially refers to the habit of leaving without saying that one is going.  As a social behaviour, it might be regarded as rude (leaving a party without thanking the host) or alternatively as polite (leaving a party without disturbing the host).  It's clear, however, that the origin of the term is military, and therefore hardly surprising that the French use the equivalent term "filer a l'Anglaise", i.e. they take "English" leave.
I've been on leave from this blog, and I suppose it was French leave in a sense, as I didn't announce to the world that I was going anywhere - I try not to do that when I'm going on holiday, for obvious reasons.  I just annoy people with my holiday photos when I get home.  If you want to see those, they are viewable on Facebook if you are one of my "friends", as many of you are.  You might also notice that I've changed my profile picture and overlaid it with the French flag, as many of my friends have done. 
I don't know if Siegfried would have taken such an action.  I often wonder what he would have thought of Facebook and other social media (incidentally, a novelty publication entitled The History of the World through Twitter includes a section in which Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have a playful argument with Rupert Brooke - I didn't find it very funny but others might).  Owen was, to my mind, more the kind of person that might have done so, particularly in view of his pre-war residence at  Bordeaux and Bagn√®res-de-Bigorre.  His knowledge of the French nation and its language must surely have been far superior to Siegfried's.

Siegfried Sassoon knew all about patriotism, and I'm sure could understand the feelings of French people on being invaded and defeated by the Germans, but he might not have had the same degree of empathy with them that Owen would have done.  Despite his anger at the death of David Thomas and his willingness to take part in wild raids on the German trenches, he seems in general to have felt almost as much sympathy for the enemy as he did for his own side.  Many have referred to him as "the quintessential English gentleman", but that might carry with it implications of blinkered obedience to popular national sentiment that would be quite unjustified.

To the best of my knowledge, Siegfried had never been to France before he arrived at Boulogne in November 1915; I do not think he had been outside Britain, and thus his awareness of the world beyond his native land was limited, certainly by comparison with men like Owen, Charles Sorley, and Richard Aldington, all of whom had lived abroad prior to their enlistment.  In that sense, and perhaps in many others, Sassoon was an innocent.

The same would have been true of most of his fellow soldiers, probably even including the junior officers.  Very few would have been outside the British Isles before.  Television was decades in the future and cinema images were still monochrome; even books rarely contained coloured photographs. I cannot help wondering what he made of it.  As the troop ship pulled into the quay, was his eye caught (like mine, the first time I ever went to France) by the tall, narrow houses, so different in style from what he had left behind in Britain?
Always a nature lover, Sassoon would quickly have fallen in love with the French countryside.  He had been all over England and seen various landscapes, and he would surely have appreciated northern France just as much.  The evidence that he felt this way is to be found in a little-known poem, "France", which would be published in his collection, The Old Huntsman, in 1917.  It is written in a traditional vein.  Though not without merit, it is not one of his best known, and for fairly obvious reasons, as it appears – up to a point – to glorify the soldier’s role.  Siegfried seems to be saying that the country, with its “radiant forests” and “gleaming landscapes”, is well worth fighting for.  At this moment, I am certain that many French people feel exactly the same.  Was France, for the poet, just a hook on which to hang a poem?  I’m not sure whether, in his mind, it represents a mother land, whose defence is a good reason for its people to be prepared to go to war, or just a place Siegfried felt was beautiful and deserved to be saved.

At the weekend I heard a lot about France at the Wilfred Owen Association's AGM.  As most of you reading this will be aware, there is a thriving French organisation, based in Ors where Owen is buried, dedicated to preserving his memory.  The Forester's House in Le Pommereuil, where he wrote his last letter to his mother, is a tourist attraction.  Both Owen and Sassoon seem to have felt that France was a land worth fighting to save, and I have no doubt that both would at this moment be experiencing a deep sadness about recent events in Paris.  Whether either of them would have believed that bombing Syria was an answer, I am less certain.

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