Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC day 2015 - Wilfred Owen; Siegfried Sassoon

Into April and almost ANZAC day once more – an Australian remembrance of the blunder at Gallipoli and how the Turks kicked our arses all the way back to Bondi.  Oh alright then, it’s a celebration of historic events that defined us for who we are as a nation and epitomises the ‘Aussie’ spirit of mateship, true grit and cheerful perseverance in the face of struggle and adversity – there!  Of course few of the poor beggars who took part in Gallipoli would have appreciated that.  Normally at ANZAC day I’m looking for a Naval poem to post – the Navy being my background and tradition.  But this year happens to be the 100th anniversary of when Australian and New Zealand troops were put ashore at Gallipoli, so I thought it might be more fitting to revisit favourite poems that come out of the great war (WW1) – poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Blunden, Rosenberg, Graves …..  Reading these guys makes you appreciate how the art of poetry can capture a moment in time and make it as moving and stark as any artist’s painting or cameraman’s photo – more so I believe, because it is through the arrangement of words forming our civilised tongue that common emotion is stirred within us most strongly.  That’s how I feel about Wilfred Owen’s, Dulce Et Decorum Est.  Wilfred was English and must have been a man of true grit – he enlisted in 1915 (2nd Lieutenant), treated for shellshock, sent back to the UK, returned to France and the front line in 1918 and was killed in action on the fourth of November (one week before Armistice Day).  Wilfred Owen was strongly influenced and mentored by another great WW1 poet, Siegfried Sassoon.  He and Sassoon met when Wilfred was being treated for shellshock in the UK.  Both these poets tell of how life really was at the front, in the trenches – pull no punches; a strong protest against war which is in contrast to some of the patriotic fervour written at the start of the war by poets such as Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas.  The title of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est forms part of a more complete quote given in the last line – “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, (The old Lie: It is sweet and right to die for your country.).  Literal translation of the title?  Sweet and Right/Fitting/Honourable/Glorious it is!

 Dulce Et Decorum Est
(Wilfred Owen – 1893 to 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood shod.  All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …..
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes
Writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen has not chosen the title of his poem by accident – way back around 50 BC a Roman poet named Horace coined the phrase in one of his Odes, III.2.13.  The quote was also inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1913 (wonder if it’s still there?).  I reckon Wilfred must have sat in that chapel as a young, raw officer, reflected on those words; perhaps romantically embraced them at the time and then spat them back bitterly when he had a taste of reality of war on the western front.
Two things in a poem for me – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  Dulce Et Decorum Est satisfies my need for content – clear that it’s about a company of soldiers making their way out of the front line to a rest area (“towards our distant rest began to trudge”) when they come under a chlorine or mustard gas attack.  Standard procedure is for somebody to yell “Gas! Gas!” (expelling air from their lungs so as not to breathe it in).  This alerts others to put their gas masks on (“…. fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets ….”).  One man is slow to react and is overcome by the gas before getting his mask on (“…. someone  …flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …”).  The effect of the gas is horrific (“… guttering, choking, drowning.  The blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs …”).  Another reference to gas masks is in the second stanza (“ ..through the misty panes and thick green light,”).  This is the poet looking through the green tinted glass that was fitted to WW1 style gas masks.  “Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines …” tells us that the soldiers have moved beyond the range (“outstripped”) of the enemy artillery firing 5.9 calibre shells.
I have to admire the construction of this poem also.  Look at the rhyme structure – it supports the presentation of two sonnets – the first one speaks of action in the present tense (the poet is there as things are happening).  The second sonnet puts the poet at a distance from the horror.  He’s having nightmares about what he’s experienced and they are full of sights and sounds of the human body in tortured death.  Oh there is no glory (tell with such high zest …”).

Now my link to Wilfred Owen and Australian soldiers in WW1 was formed last year when I was fortunate to visit Ypres in Belgium.  Many Australian soldiers fought and died defending that town in the five battles of Ypres (some 36000 killed or wounded).  Plus many more UK and Commonwealth troops marched out of Ypres on their way to the front crossing an ancient bridge and moat at a place called Menin Gate.  After the war, a memorial was erected there to commemorate the names of over 54000 men who died and have no known graves (bodies not identified or found).  The names of the soldiers are carved on the stone walls.  Menin Gate is now a very popular tourist attraction.  Something I found out while researching for this post (which tells me now that it’s good to do your study before going on holiday), prior to WW1 there were two stone lions guarding the Menin Gate (not there now).  They were removed to prevent them being damaged during the war, and then after the war they were donated to Australia and now sit at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – how about that; visited there many times but I’ve never noticed them lions.  Also, if you are going to visit Menin Gate (being a poetry lover), research beforehand the origin of Latin quotes carved on the external walls of the memorial.
Having walked down the road to Menin Gate to witness a ceremony of the last post, I wanted to write my observations, my thoughts, feelings – I thought the emotion would be ‘moving’, ‘reverent’ – and I’m sure it could have been except for the millions of other people who seemed to be jostling desperately to be a survivor.  And then I thought, I guess this is akin to the WW1 western front experience – go with it!  So I wrote, At Menin Gate 2014.  The first line of Wilfred Owen’s poem gave me my first line, “Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.”
The opening ceremony for the Menin Gate memorial was held in 1927.  At that time the English poet, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem titled, On Passing the New Menin Gate.  I include it here as an extra because it is such an emotional, strong protest on how he, a soldier who experienced the war feels betrayal and insult by those who sent young men to wasteful slaughter, and then try to honour it through a pile of stones built in an arch (“ ..ever an immolation (sacrifice) so belied (failed to act up to)”).
  On Passing the New Menin Gate
(Siegfried Sassoon – 1886 to 1967)
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, -
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound.  And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

2014.  September – we meet up with our UK friends and do a motoring tour of Europe.  First stop is Ypres (Leper).  I’m done over by what I can only describe as the ‘touristification’ of significant sites, the bus loads of camera snappy visitors.
At Menin Gate 2014
Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.
Bodies pressed tip toe skittish as meerkats,
we cuss arriving late for taps at the Menin Gate.
Now a mob has amassed in ignorance already,
amidst this lurking, baffling smell of horseshit,
but for the horse, there appears to be not one.
Two Romanians roll loose tobacco and stare at women.
School girls on foreign excursion flirt in frayed shorts,
run away and giggle from youths
become weary with walls
which they know are meant to be sad,
but really man, what can ya do?
And the Japanese girls comprehend nothing at all.
Then a trumpet rustles it to silence and look.
And from the silence as many lit iPhone screens
on sticks,
rise irreverent to capture something on facebook –
You went to Ypres, what was it like?
And casting around at the common eyed curiosity,
a sense of dull pity dawns, this
the surviving DNA?
While the best of mankind’s seed went to waste?
Spilled in the fields of Flanders,
And all up over the walls of the Menin Gate?
                                                                                                                 J. O. White

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