Literature and World War I

The Alliance of Literary Society’s annual gathering was co-hosted by the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and the Wilfred Own Association at Craiglockhart Campus of Napier University in Edinburgh, the former hospital where shell-shocked officers were treated during the First World War and where Sassoon and Owen met while undergoing therapy there in 1917.

The first lecture was by Professor Alistair McCleery on The First World War and the Scottish Novel. Being academic, Professor McCleery began by questioning how to define the Scottishness of a writer or their works. Was one or more of residence, place of birth, subject matter, a Scottish ‘sensibility’ a necessary or a sufficient criterion (e.g. is J.K. Rowling a Scottish writer simply because she now lives in Edinburgh even though she was born in the South-West, and writes about pupils of a school which is not in Scotland)?

Without definitively giving his opinion on this question he turned to Neil Gunn (1891-1973) who was, he said, a Scottish writer by several of the above criteria (including residence and setting of his novels in Scotland). Gunn did not serve in the armed forces during the First World War, being in a reserved occupation, working for the Customs and Excise (taxing whisky raised vital revenue for the war effort) but three of his brothers were killed in the forces and he drew on the experiences of his older brother who was gassed during the war.

His work gave expression to the anger and bitterness that he felt at the consequences of the war suffered, in particular, by the poorer members of society in Scotland. He found catharsis in the writing of Morning Tide (1931) and later in Highland River (1937) and The Silver Darlings (1941). The last of these is now more or less a permanent fixture on the curriculum reading lists of schools in Scotland.

Professor McCleery then turned his attention to Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-1935). This was the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell who served in the middle east at the end of the First World War. He took migration as a key theme for his work and looks back to a golden age. In Sunset Song (1932) he writes of the destruction and loss of his homeland with a sadness and sense of loss. In Grey Granite (1934) he uses instead a city setting – Aberdeen in all but name – and concludes that all you can hope for is recovery not a restoration of the past.

Professor Hazel Hutchison, in the second lecture, Whistling over the fields: Soundscapes of War, opened with the startling premise that although communication technology 100 years ago enabled photographs of the front to be sent by telegraph to be published in newspapers scarcely more than 24 hours after events occurred on the battlefield, we have only imaginary sounds. Movies at the time were silent. Any soundtrack now attached to them was added years later. All the explosions captured on film, the great gouts of earth flying upward from the mud, did so in silence on the original film reels.

This in spite of the fact that the gunfire and explosions of mines laid under enemy trenches in Belgium could be heard or felt through the ground beneath your feet in London. These were the noisiest man-made events up to that date, yet we have no record of their sound.

All we have is recollections captured in the words of those who experienced them.

The title of the talk is taken from one of Kipling’s 31 Epitaphs which, unlike much of his chauvenism and jingoistic, empire-building works, offers fragmentary glimpses: “If any ask why we died, Tell him because our fathers lied”. In one the whistle of a bullet as it comes to take the life of a soldier is transformed into the whistling of a country lad on the way across the fields to meet his lover.

Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, written at Craiglockhart, includes the onomatopoeiac “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” as the troops walk forward to “die as cattle”.

Professor Hutchison explained that living confined within the trenches reduced the scope for seeing the world (popping your head over the top was an invitation for a sniper to blow it off) and so the outside, wider world was constructed for the troops largely out of the sounds. The nearness or distance of explosions or gunfire became the horizons of their experience.

The Forbidden Zone (1929) by Mary Borden describes her work as a nurse in field hospitals close to the front. She described the cannonade as her lullaby and could sleep through that but would wake at the soft mewing of a man in pain who might die that night.

In the midst of all this noise, silence and birdsong became te soundtrack to precious intervals between the slaughter. The silence was also a metaphor for the censorship – explicit in the UK, less so in the USA, and often self-censorship. Men would return and be unable to speak of their experiences.

Yet everyone sang, as Sassoon remarks. Music hall songs became an antidote to the fear with which the soldiers lived so that “the singing will never be done”.

One hundred years on, with the opportunity to visit the university’s collection of war poetry composed by those recuperating at Craiglockhart, many, like Wilfred Owen, to return to be killed at the front, the lectures presented a sobering reflection on the experience of our forefathers from which we are shielded to a very great extent. Indeed this is so much so, that the deaths of seven people in London in a terrorist incident that same evening has a capacity to appall us in spite of the contemplation during the day of deaths measured in millions during the World Wars. It is well that we are not desensitized to such events and retain a grip on the value of every single life.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Literature and World War I

  1. Sheila Hamrick

    OMG! There is so much about this that reminds me of the thoughts following our Civil War and the poets and writers material on it …I am haunted by visions of WWI and I wasn’t even born until long after WWII…thanks for sending this out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Thanks Sheila. The whole weekend was thought provoking and moving. We attended a ceremony at Edinburgh Castle which ended with a bugler playing the Last Post. Hauntingly beautiful.

  2. Sheila Hamrick

    In one the whistle of a bullet as it comes to take the life of a soldier is transformed into the whistling of a country lad on the way across the fields to meet his lover. (And, this nearly did me in!)

  3. Thank you, Mark, for such a comprehensive review of the two lectures. I was rushing around so much I was not able to take notes, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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