Tuesday, 1 August 2017

They called it Passchendaele

One of Siegfried Sassoon's best-known lines of poetry is finally getting some recognition, courtesy of the centenary. "I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele." How many times have you heard that quoted in recent days? The Guardian used it. The Telegraph used it. The Daily Mail used it. The BBC website used it (along with the curious comment that "One hundred years on, Passchendaele is still remembered through the war poet Siegfried Sassoon"). The irony, for those of us who are familiar with Sassoon's war record, is that he was not present at the Battle of Passchendaele. At the time the battle took place, he was not even at the Western Front.
I had heard of it long before I knew how to spell it, and long before I knew what it referred to. "Passion Dale" - it actually sounded quite pleasant. But "passion" means "suffering", and the picture it conjures up nowadays, for anyone who knows the slightest thing about the battle, is of thousands of men suffering in an environment that had once been attractive but was now so badly damaged as to be unrecognisable.
The news inevitably reached the home front. Whenever politicians and military leaders try to cover something up, it always gets out eventually. Sometimes it takes decades, but even with censorship being strictly applied it would have been difficult to prevent word getting back to the soldiers' families and friends, either through personal accounts or by means of telegrams sent to the mothers, fathers and wives of the innumerable dead.
Heavy irony makes itself felt again here. If there is one thing history is consistent about, it is that those who actually witnessed the horror of Passchendaele found it almost impossible to talk about it in the years that followed. Harry Patch, "the last fighting Tommy", had to be coaxed into giving vent to his memories, in conversation with Richard van Emden and others, when he was aged over a hundred.
Nevertheless, Sassoon heard about Passchendaele. The first day of the battle coincided with the reading of the "Soldier's Declaration" in the British Parliament by Bertie Lees-Smith, ensuring that as many people as possible heard about this courageous rebel. On August 14th, in an Edinburgh hospital, Siegfried received news of the death of one of his oldest friends, Gordon Harbord (the Stephen Colwood of Fox-Hunting Man). Harbord, whom he had known for nearly ten years, was killed at Wieltje while supporting the action at Ypres. One might argue that Harbord was one of the lucky ones; the location of his grave is known. Sassoon's immediate response to the news was to write a poem titled "A Wooden Cross". He wrote, "The world's too full of heroes, mostly dead," and he refers to the war as "a stinking lie". By now he was being treated by the sympathetic William Rivers, and he did not leave Craiglockhart until late November, when the fighting at Passchendaele was virtually over.
Another, better-known, casualty of the battle was a Welsh-speaking farmer called Ellis Humphrey Evans, remembered by his bardic name of "Hedd Wyn" (literally "white peace"). Although the National Eisteddfod was not broadcast through mass media as it is now, most of Wales could not help being aware that the winner of the bard's chair at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod had been killed some weeks earlier, on the first day of the Passchendaele offensive; the announcement was made in the presence of the prime minister, Lloyd George.
The Menin Gate, the physical reminder of the battle, has become a favourite place to quote from the war poets, but it was not something that Sassoon loved. He saw the "pile of peace-complacent stone" shortly after it was erected, and was disgusted enough to write a poem disowning it. "This sepulchre of crime" he calls it, in his 1927 poem "On Passing the New Menin Gate". I have argued with many who say that Sassoon disliked the Menin Gate, because I do not think it was the building himself that angered him, nor even what it symbolised. Rather, he found it intolerable that the authorities should think they had in some way made up for the losses of all those men by building a monument to them and inscribing "Their name liveth for evermore" on it. This, to Sassoon, was simply not enough. The result is possibly the last of his angry war poems.

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