Wilfred Owen. Siegfried Sassoon. Rupert Brooke. Names that many have heard even if they have never read their heart-wrenching poetry.
And to coincide with the first anniversary of the start of the war and also the August Bank Holiday which offered so much hope in 1914 and so much despair in 1915, the Market Harborough Advertiser’s August 10 edition reproduces a poem written by one of the town’s soldiers serving in Flanders.
It will never be found among the celebrated War Poets on the A Level curriculum, but in its way it’s full of imagery that’s worthy of analysis. Here is just one of the verses.
A whistle, a whirr, a deafening crash,
The crack of a shell-split tree,
A cry, a shout, the stretcher’s out –
“Is it Blighty or R.I.P.?”
Shrapnel, they send them now and then
In the hope of catching a few –
This is our way on Bank Holiday,
Is it the same with you?
In just 51 words the lot of a frontline soldier is captured: the incessant shellfire that sent many men mad; the indiscriminate roll of the dice that exploding bombs bring – life, death or a chance to go home with a ‘minor’ wound; and the sense of injustice that still at home there are many young men who have not volunteered. In fact the poem is called To The Slackers.
To be fair to the young men of Market Harborough, the newspaper reports in detail the recruiting rally held to mark the anniversary which acknowledges that there are very few who have not answered the call.
That doesn’t stop the E Company poet or Private Arthur Gilbert, also writing in one of the many letters picked up by the Advertiser’s journalists and used as a news story, urging men to volunteer.
“Just tell some of those ‘hang-backs’ that there is still a rifle and suit left in the British Army, and also that there are still a few Germans to be killed, in fact a good many.”
Apart from the rallying call, Private Gilbert also displays a sentiment that is becoming more and more prevalent in those letters from the young soldiers suffering the horrors of trench warfare: they are becoming immune to the agony of their enemies.
In another letter, a ‘well known Harborian’ describes – with relish – how sappers had dug a tunnel under the German trenches only 50 yards away and exploded a mine.
“It was a wonderful sight to see the earth and sandbags going yards in the air and for a minute it simply rained earth, and one had to dodge the falling bits,” he says.
There was no mercy for the Germans caught by the blast. And there is no sense of shame in his subsequent description of what happens next. “Our artillery then opened fire and we commenced blazing away to catch them digging out those that were buried and I think a good many Germans were accounted for.”
There is an even more chilling account of how he and his comrades watched an air battle between fighter planes and ended with a German aircraft coming down in flames.
“The machine guns of our plane must have set his petrol tank on fire, as it was all blazing. One of the occupants either fell out or jumped whilst it was at a great height in the air and it was thrilling to see his body falling through the air into a wood close by.”
How can anyone savour the telling of a story like that and ‘enjoy’ seeing someone die in such a way?
It has taken just 12 months for the soldiers of Market Harborough to succumb to the feral fighting of trench warfare and lose complete empathy with their fellow man. Civilisation is disappearing.
- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.