Armistice Day: The Great War and the words we mustn't forget

Poets and soldiers recorded the horror of the Great War in writing that has affected generations. But as English evolves in the digital age, asks Robert Fisk, will their powerful words soon stop making sense?

Wednesday 11 November 2009 01:00

Why has the Great War of 1914-18 remained so central to our lives? The Second World War produced its crops of names, easy to remember, like punctuation marks: Dunkirk, the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, el-Alamein, Stalingrad, Normandy, Dresden, Hiroshima. But somehow those earlier 1914-18 slaughters, their geographical location so scarred into our historical conscience, are wounds that will not close. Or wounds whose terrible consequences cannot be erased. Ypres, Verdun, the Somme have a doom-like quality that have fully retained their semantic origins. The very name of the Somme has an assonance which still fills us with despair. Just as Passchendaele seems to include the very word "passion" in English and French, the Somme is like "sombre", the funereal mood of the graveyard.

Here, for example, is Frederic Manning's truly sinister account of British troops moving up to the Somme at night, marching through a tiny French village, to the sadness and consternation of the few French men and women still awake:

Doors suddenly opened and light fell through the doorways, and voices asked the soldiers where they were going.

"Somme! Somme!" they shouted, as though it were a challenge.

"Ah, no bon!" came the kindly, pitying voices in reply ... And that was an enemy to them, that little touch of gentleness and kindliness; it struck them with a hand harsher than death's, and they sang louder, seeing only the white road before them.

Somme. Somme. The name speaks of sacrifice on a monstrous, epic scale, the destruction of youth. Even today, semantics and linguistics have maintained the relationship of these men with us. Their language, their expressions, their horror – the metaphors they use – are contemporary. They are as if of now. They are our people, yours and mine.

The soldier-poet Edmund Blunden, writing 96 years ago, sounds equally contemporary:

One morning, dark and liquid and wild, Colonel Harrison and a number of us went off in a lorry to reconnoitre in Ypres proper, and to visit the trenches we were to hold. The sad Salient lay under a heavy silence, broken here and there by the ponderous muffled thump of trench mortar shells round the line. We passed big houses, one or two, glimmering whitely, life in death; we found light come by the time that we passed the famous Asylum, a red ruin with some buildings and ornaments still surviving over its doorway ... There was in the town itself the same strange silence, and the staring pallor of the streets in that daybreak was unlike anything I had known. The Middle Ages had here contrived to lurk, and this was their torture at last. We all felt this, as the tattered picture swung by like accidents of vision; and when we got out of the lorry by the Menin Gate (that unlovely hiatus) we scarcely seemed awake and aware.

Note how Blunden almost tricks us into understanding. The "sad Salient", the ruined houses "glimmering whitely" – like the "white road" stretching out before the doomed British soldiers in Manning's book – the "staring pallor" of the streets, the "accidents of vision", the "unlovely hiatus". This is literature sharpened by fear and weariness.

It seems extraordinary today that a woman also wrote from the Western Front – under fire. Margot Asquith, wife of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, received permission to visit the Ypres front line in 1914. Few even realise that a woman did record events there at this time. But here is her sad and painful description of the graves cluttering the Ypres cemetery and of the German bombardment of the city:

The Ypres cemetery will haunt me forever. No hospital of wounded or dying men could have given me a greater insight into the waste of War than that dripping gaunt and crowded churchyard. There were broken bits of wood stuck in the grass at the head of hundreds of huddled graves, with English names scrawled upon them in pencil. Where the names had been washed off, forage-caps were hanging, and they were all placed one against the other as closely as possible. I saw a Tommy digging, and said: "Who is that grave for?" He answered without stopping or looking at me: "For the next." ... Thin white lines of smoke, like poplars in a row, stood out against the horizon and I saw the flash of every German gun. My companions said that if the shells had been coming our way they would have gone over our heads; the German troops, he explained, must have come on unknown to them in the night, and he added he did not think that either the Belgians, the British, or the French knew at all what they were up to.

So far as I can discover, this passage is the first indication in prose during the Great War – the very first hint – that chaos rather than order might decide the coming bloodbath. And it was a non-military writer – a woman – who understood the significance of this. But again, we have that wonderful metaphor – from the heart of literary tradition of the shell explosions standing "like poplars in a row". Interestingly, Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet and Great War "poilu", found a strangely similar metaphor when he described shellfire near Nîmes four months later, in January of 1915:

Et puis mon souvenir s'eteindrait comme meurt
Un obus eclatent sur le front de l'armee
Un bel obus semblable aux mimosas en fleur

(And then my memory would fade
As a shell blooms, bursting over the front line,......... 
Magnificent, like mimosa in bloom.)

Yet I find, with the passing years, that the poetry of the Great War no longer seizes hold of me in the same way as the prose. Perhaps we have overused the poetry of Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Perhaps, like the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth or Handel's Water Music, I have read too many times of the corner of a foreign field that is forever England, of how "Everyone suddenly burst out singing", of the gas victim with the "froth-corrupted lungs". It is as if the poetry has been used up, to await another generation which might read it with freshness. I say "might" read it. I could say the same of the prose.

My father, Bill Fisk – much older than my mother – was himself a soldier in the Great War. Every year, he would take me around the battlefields of that war, to the Somme, to Ypres and Verdun. He first brought me to Ypres in 1956, when I was just 10 years old. He was filled with patriotism mixed with a kind of bleak but soldierly sorrow when he toured the cemeteries. In later years, when Bill understood the mendacity of General Haig and read in silence the growing number of books about those soldiers who had been put before the firing squad, his mood changed. Once, when he was very old and recovering from a cancer operation, I asked him the question that historians have still not been able to answer. What on earth was the Great War about? "All it was, Fellah," he replied to me, "was just one great waste." The very words of Margot Asquith.

I understood him. As a Middle East Correspondent, I have covered many wars. One of them was the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, a titanic conflict of First World War proportions, its battles fought not only in the deserts beneath a sun that burned like a sword – an expression used by Lawrence of Arabia – but amid the glutinous muck of water and earth which I once described in a dispatch as "Somme-like mud". Almost a million and a half men died there. Looking back now, I see how even my own reports from that awful war reflect the language of the Great War, albeit I could never reach the passion of language – and thankfully never share the terror and pain – of those soldiers.

And when I look back as a journalist at my own reports of those terrible battles, the influence of the 1914-18 war obviously infected my own language. In the summer of 1985, the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards had stormed across the Shatt al-Arab river – once seized by British troops in 1915 and then again in 2003 – and captured the Iraqi peninsula of Fao. They had inflicted great slaughter on the Iraqis whose dead soldiers lay in the mud, newly killed, around us:

I see another body in a gun pit, a young man in the foetal position curled up like a child, already blackening with death but with a wedding ring on his finger. I am mesmerised by the ring. On this hot, golden morning, it glitters and sparkles with freshness and life. He has black hair and is around 25 years old. Or should that be "was"? Do we stop the clock when death surprises us? Do we say, as Binyon wrote, that "they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old"? Age may not weary them nor the years condemn, but their humanity is quickly taken from their remains by the swiftness of corruption and the jolly old sun. I look again at the ring. An arranged marriage or a love match? Where was he from, this soldier-corpse? ... And his wife? He could not be more than three days dead. Somewhere to the north of us, his wife is waking the children, making breakfast, glancing at her husband's photograph on the wall, unaware that she is already a widow and that her husband's wedding ring, so bright with love for her on this glorious morning, embraces a dead finger.

It's not just the quotation from Binyon's famous spiritual resurrection for the dead that crept into my report more than two decades ago The "jolly old sun", I suspect, was a memory – out there in the desert in 1985 – of Wilfred Owen's poem Futility. "Move him into the sun," Owen writes of a dead soldier's corpse. "If anything might raise him now/The kind old sun will know." This was the language of the soldiers of the Great War touching my own report, albeit unconsciously at the time, a reporter trying to chronicle another Great War. No wonder my father called his conflict "just one great waste".

Which was answer of a kind. Yet even Wyndham Lewis, the master of Vorticist art who became a soldier at Ypres, found it difficult to explain what the Great War represented for him, albeit that his attempts to do so were of a remarkable eloquence. The war, he said, was "such a tremendous landmark that locally it imposes itself upon our computations of time like the birth of Christ. We say 'pre-war' and 'post-war', rather as we say BC or AD." His autobiography, he wrote, was:

... about a little group of people crossing a bridge. The bridge is red, the people are red, the sky is red. Of course the bridge is symbolic. The bridge stands for something else. The bridge, you see, is the war.

Upon one side of the bridge is a quite different landscape to what meets the eye upon the other side, as if the stream spanned by the bridge separated a tropic from a polar landscape. And the principal figure among those crossing this little bridge – that is me – does not know that he is crossing anything, from one world into another. Indeed, everybody else seems to know it except him.

He does not see the cold stream. He scarcely sees his companions. Yet he is not a sleepwalker: he has his eye fixed upon a small red bird, upon a red bough, within a large red tree. Rather pretty, isn't it?

When he comes to reflect upon the war afterwards, few would disagree with Lewis' conclusions:

The war went on far too long, or too long for a "totalitarian" (sic) war, as it would now be called. It was too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge. Its epic proportions were grotesquely out of scale, seeing what it was fought to settle. It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing. Indeed, it was impossible to escape the feeling that it was not meant to settle anything – that could have any meaning, or be of any advantage, to the general run of men.

Here, I think, we face the truth which Bill Fisk tried to confront; that the war in which he fought was, finally, for him, devoid of meaning. He was lucky to have served on the Western Front for only three-and-a-half months – he had been delayed by soldiering in Ireland following the 1916 Rising, an episode which may well have saved his life (and thus, in a way, my own) – but he keenly felt the lack of human purpose which the Great War represented. In his 50s, when I was still a small boy, he would patiently explain to me that he had gone to fight for "little Belgium" – little Catholic Belgium which had been so cruelly overrun in 1914 (all but the tiny bit around Ypres, of course) by the men he collectively referred to as "the Hun" or – in his postcards home to his parents in Birkenhead – "the Bosche" (sic). He talked of German atrocities in the villages around Louvain and in the city itself; war crimes which we now know the Germans actually did commit in 1914.

My father, needless to say, regarded the Irish whom he was sent to suppress as cowards and traitors, while the Irish patriots who fought against the British in Dublin later came to see their own brothers who were fighting in British uniform at Ypres and on the Somme as traitors of a worse kind. The nationalist tragedies and civil conflicts set off by the Great War – not least in Germany itself – were to reverberate for decades to come.

In all, 35,000 Irishmen are estimated to have been killed in the 1914-18 war. Almost 30 years ago, I travelled to Ypres with a young Irishwoman and she stood with me beneath the Menin Gate and stared in puzzlement at the 54,896 names of men who fought in my father's uniform but whose bodies were never found. Looking at all these names, the young woman was moved by how many of them were Irish. "Why, in God's name," she asked, "was a boy from the Station House, Tralee, dying here in the mud of Flanders?" After a few minutes, an elderly man approached, holding a visitor's book. He asked if she would like to sign it. This was long before Ireland became a self-confident nation within the European Union, able to face up to the sacrifice its pre-independence soldiers made in British uniform. So my friend looked at the British army's insignia on the memorial book with considerable distaste. The Crown glimmered on the cover in the evening light. They were about to play "The Last Post". There was not much time to decide. But my friend could not forget the young man from Tralee.

She was facing history, which was not as easy and comforting and comprehensible for her as it can be for those of us who always consider ourselves the winners of wars. In the end, she wrote in the book, in Irish "do thiorta beaga" – which means: "for little countries". How carefully she eased the dead Irish soldier's desire to help little Belgium – my father's reason for going to war – into the memory of the tragedy of another little country, how she was able to conflate Ireland into Flanders without losing the integrity of her own feelings.

After the Great War, German veterans responded in far more disturbing ways than Wyndham Lewis. Here, for instance, is Ernst Jünger's voice at the end of his First World War epic The Storm of Steel:

Today we cannot understand the martyrs who threw themselves into the arena in a transport that lifted them even before their deaths beyond humanity, beyond every phase of pain and fear. Their faith no longer exercises a compelling force. When once it is no longer possible to understand how a man gives his life to a country – and the time will come – then all is over with that faith also, and the idea of the Fatherland is dead; and then, perhaps, we shall be envied, as we envy the saints their inward and irresistible strength.

This, I should add, is the same Jünger who deified the Free Corps massacres of Communists and Sparticists in Munich in 1919 by identifying each member of the Free Corps as "the New Man, the storm soldier, the elite of Mitteleuropa, a completely new race, cunning, strong and purposeful. New forms must be moulded with blood, and power must be seized with a hard fist."

Thus the Great War, in the words of its veterans, either gave their lives a sense of hopelessness, a vacuum of meaning, an experience that would forever encourage them to avoid war; or, in the case of men like Jünger, a new kind of purpose, forged in blood and pain, that would necessitate yet another war in order to prove its worth. No wonder that in 1919, a great French leader, Clemenceau, predicted that the Versailles Treaty was merely a 20-year ceasefire. His timing was absolutely correct.

Bill Fisk refused to carry out an order to execute a fellow soldier, charged with desertion and murder. But he had less time for those who simply refused to fight or serve in the war: conscientious objectors – my father used to call them "conchies". After all, after dozens of postcards from his old Birkenhead school pals – all of which I have, all of whom were killed in the 1914-18 War – Bill headed off to Ireland and then to do his duty in the Third Battle of the Somme. He wasn't interested in men who wouldn't fight for their country. He gave me A E W Mason's The Four Feathers in which the hero leaves his regiment before the Sudanese campaign and receives three white feathers from his friends and one from his fiancée. Bill Fisk wasn't trying to teach me lessons about cowardice. He just didn't want his son to be a D H Lawrence, writing poetry while his compatriots died in the mud for his privilege to do so. "Tell me, Fellah," Bill would say to me. "If the Nazis were coming for your Mum and Dad, wouldn't you fight for them?"

Wyndham Lewis, reflecting on his desire to remain with his fellow soldiers at the front, found himself "less inclined to immolate himself in defence of Mayfair", being "only concerned with the idea of deserting my companions in misfortune." He recalled Lytton Strachey before one of the conscientious objection tribunal's judges, a man whose words prefigured my father's own argument:

"What," sternly asked one of the judges, "would you do Mr Strachey, if you discovered a German preparing to outrage your sister?" ... the "bloomsberries" all exempted themselves, in one way or another. Yet they had money and we hadn't ultimately it was to keep them fat and prosperous ... that other people were to risk their lives. Then there were the tales of how a certain famous artist, of military age and militant bearing, would sit in the Café Royal and, addressing an admiring group back from the Front, would exclaim: "We are the civilisation for which you are fighting!"

Yet who could disagree – after the Great War, if not during its immense sacrifice – that the "rules of war" are largely a nonsense, an invention to transform mass murder into mass sacrifice. Tolstoy's devastating critique of Napoleon's invasion of Russia must be invoked here, because he wrote that:

War began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts incendiarisms and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

Again, through translation, Tolstoy too speaks our language. But what is happening to our language? Our generation – those of us, like the soldiers of the Great War, who lived in the age of handwriting and typewriters – maintained the semantics of those who lived before us. For us, those soldiers of the First World War still speak to us as we might speak. Cast back in time, we might still visit the Ypres of 1915 or 1917 and walk up to those soldiers and chat to them and understand every word they say to us. We understand, through instinct, the meaning of Blunden's "houses whitely glimmering", Apollinaire's metaphor of "mimosa in bloom", Asquith's "poplars in a row".

But I fear that we are permitting our wondrous technology, our computers, to change our language. Ironically, I worry that the words of those who cry out to us from the first war of industrial technology will be erased from our comprehension by the industrial technology of the email, the SMS, the blog, Twitter. I use none of these. But I do notice, when I am sent hard copies of emails – even when they are quoting poetry or citing passages of prose – that they are almost always ungrammatical, misspelled, abbreviated. There has been no revision. Owen and Sassoon were constantly revising their work. All authors should do the same. But speed and brevity have overtaken the precision and discipline of writing. In a world where even the names of our towns can lose their apostrophes, how can we preserve our contact with the past?

True, the distortion of language is not a solely English sin. In the largely immigrant suburbs of Paris, there has come into existence an "argot" in which words are inverted, spelled backwards in a conscious rejection of French culture. Yet this is a code, as simple to unscramble as an artillery coordinate on the Western Front, or a directive to a 1940 Battle of Britain pilot to vector on enemy aircraft at "Angels Five" (5,000ft). And yes, I can see how the British soldier's mis-transliteration of "Wipers" for Ypres, of "Charley Roy" for Charleroi, might be given an SMS context. But this was surely out of weird affection rather than error. It is the sheer, almost wilful failure to "manage" language rather than to "control" it, which is what we are allowing our mobile phones and blackberries to do. We all faced school examinations which demanded answers "in not more than 400 words". But when told how many characters – how many alphabetical letters – we may use in a tweet, we are losing our freedom of expression. Increasingly, for example, I am being sent hard-copy messages from which most verbs have been deleted.

And I am reminded of a lunch I enjoyed in Dublin 30 years ago with John Dillon, an opposition pro-British member of the Irish parliament, who opposed Ireland's policy of neutrality in the Second World War but who – long before the war – had supported the Irish equivalent of the Nazi Brownshirts, led by a former police commissioner called Eoin O'Duffy. Dillon described to me the moment he realised that O'Duffy was a dangerous man:

One day in West Cork, I was standing behind him on a balcony when he addressed a rally of several thousand young Blueshirts. He was speaking very rapidly. It dawned on me that they were hanging on his words in a kind of obsessed way and I suddenly realised that he was speaking without verbs. It had no discernable meaning ... I remembered Hitler.

The German Great War veteran Jünger, I think, might have approved of this verb-less world, for it cuts us off not only from reality but from our shared past. How in future will we interpret the glorious, fearful description of Ypres that Blunden wrote after the Great War?:

Over the sepulchral city, aeroplanes flew and fought in the cold winter sun. Sentries blew their whistles from broken archways; the brass shell-cases used for gas gongs gleamed with a meaning beside them; and all of a sudden flights of shells came sliding into the town.

Those words will have to struggle for their place in a world where libraries of books have been abandoned for what our education authorities call "language tools", screens rather than pages, "surfing" rather than deep reading. Will we, in another generation, have to "translate" Blunden and Graves into a new computerised language, just as today most of us need translations to understand Chaucer's Middle English? Are the words of the Great War soldiers going to sound like Beowolf in Old English, an epic of war which now needs interpretation? Those dead battalions will have to fight to be heard. Will we let them? Can they remain as imperishable as we would wish, or is their language to be as tattered as the paper upon which it was once written?

Years ago, I found in Belfast a sad memento of the Somme, the work of a Northern Ireland Protestant railwayman who fought in the Ulster Division and spent some of his time in the trenches of the Western Front sticking newspaper clippings into his old railway notebook, patriotic poetry and photographs of guns and armies and political cartoons of a brutal Kaiser threatening the virgin Belgium. His old book is falling to pieces now, its cover flaking off from the damp of those trenches long ago, its pages as fragile as old bone. But one article this distant soldier scissored from the paper stands out. It's a report on the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot by a German firing squad in Brussels on 12 October 1915, for helping up to 200 Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium.

The report – the anonymous Belfast soldier left no indication of the newspaper in which it was printed – is remarkable for its lack of emotion, and records Cavell's last words, as they were recorded at the time by the Rev H S T Gahan, the British chaplain in Brussels. We all know the four words chiselled onto Cavell's monument near Trafalgar Square in London: "Patriotism is not enough." But these are merely a soundbite, an apparently pugnacious response to her killers, the SMS version of the truth. So here, according to the report in this old soldier's book from the trenches, is what she really said, in full and in context:

I have no fear nor shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I thank God for this 10 weeks' quiet. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

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