‘The Great War in Portraits’, a book from the National Portrait Gallery

Adlestrop and the guns of August – Shakespeare’s fourth age: The Soldier

In this article, we must journey back in time, just over 100 years. We are in the long hot summer of 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War is but two months away. The Yeoman patriotic spirit that had been aroused by Henry V in his St Crispin’s Day speech remained alive in the English breast, notwithstanding the preceding century of calm that had followed Waterloo.

Europe, the continent of conflict, had enjoyed an unaccustomed peace. During this century, the railways of Europe had been built. 1914 was to see them put to another use; the carrying of troops.

Appropriately enough, our story starts in a railway carriage on the Oxford to Worcester line of the GWR at 12.45 on June 23, 1914, when the steam train carrying Edward Thomas, a poet whose father had worked with the Board of Trade on Light Railways, stopped unexpectedly at Adlestrop Station in Gloucestershire.

We know this, as it was recorded in Thomas’ pocketbook; through the family connection he loved railways and he always carried it with him. He wrote this poem of meadowsweet, of grass and willowherb and birds singing a year later in 1915 when he was back in England from the front line, on leave. In it, he remembered the train journey he had taken a year before, two months ahead of the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.

I chose this poem as a prologue to the sad, heartrending poetry that follows for a number of reasons. First, it evokes the Edwardian Golden Age; an age Frederick Ashton captured so well in his ballet ‘Enigma Variations’ recently streamed from the Royal Opera House. Secondly, it is in complete contrast with the disillusion and horror of war expressed by Wilfred Owen and others to which we will come later.

In its reference to birdsong, it anticipates Sassoon’s most famous poem published at the end of the War ‘Everyone Sang’ – “O, but everyone was a bird, and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done”. Finally, the Armistice was signed in another railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest.

In time of war, poetry has to express both gallantry and death. The heart of the Soldier Poet must encompass both extreme bravery and extreme sorrow. His poem must transport his message over many generations, “lest we forget”.

In the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, in an earlier war, Lord Tennyson described the bravery of the Charge but also questioned its purpose. The message is clear – the order was folly. Rupert Brooke in ‘The Soldier’, written in 1914, premises his poem with his death – “If I should die”.

The wretchedness of war is put to one side; the possibility of bad orders not mentioned. We are left standing beside The Soldier, alone in some foreign field. We share through the poem, “the thoughts of England given; Her sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day; And the laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness in hearts at peace, under an English heaven”. He died in Skyros April 23, 1915, from septicaemia from war wounds. His poem proved prophetic.

A virtual poetry reading at my Club earlier this year introduced me to a war poem, frankly, as tough as they come. Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific writer of screen plays and novels and short stories. He had been adopted at birth by a London Fish Porter and grew up in a family of 12. He left home early and enlisted in the British Army and was shipped to South Africa as part of the Medical Staff Corps. He then became a War Correspondent in the Second Boer War.

The poem narrates the “whimper of sobs at the rear”. “And it’s War! But the part that is not for show”. It finishes with the chilling couplet “There might have been – sooner – a chance for his life. But it’s War, And – Orderly, clean this knife!”

To illustrate this horrific poem, I had in my library in the Algarve a portrait of the RAMC stretcher bearer in an excellent book from the National Portrait Gallery ‘The Great War in Portraits’. The portrait is by Gilbert Rogers. The RAMC were responsible for evacuating the wounded from the battlefield.

During the First World War, 1,100,000 were invalided home to the UK. Of these, two thirds returned to duty in the War. Even in the midst of the present pandemic, one struggles to comprehend the scale of suffering.

Before and in the early part of the War, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) had been teaching English in Bordeaux. He returned to the UK, enlisted, trained and joined the front line in December 1916. By then, the expectation of a quick end to the War had long passed. In March 1917, he was involved in fierce fighting at the Somme and was invalided home to a hospital near Edinburgh where he met Siegfried Sassoon. They became friends and shared the same views on the futility of war.

During the four years of the War, the mood changed from patriotic idealism to anger, despair and delusion. His poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ expresses this; his use of metaphor is searing. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” “The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”; “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds”. Read such lines and weep for the fallen.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) started the War as an optimist. Born into a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, he had always wanted to be a poet. He too was in the Somme offensive, scarred by the appalling conditions in the trenches and its loss of life.

I have chosen from his works ‘Everyone Sang’ published in 1919 after the Armistice had been signed. I was drawn to it by the reference to birdsong; the same birdsong that Edward Thomas had heard through his carriage window.

William Blake used a bird also to describe the idea of freedom in the ‘Schoolboy’ poem we looked at some months back. In present times, it reminds me of the beating of pans in Italy to express fellowship with the Italian doctors in the early days of the battle against Covid, or the more reserved clapping of hands-on British doorsteps in support of the NHS. The poem has a quiet, insistent, uplifting tone. You can listen to John Gielgud reading it on You Tube and find strength as the present battle continues. Poetry is a trusted messenger, carrying despatches from the heart, from one generation to the next.

In the next age ‘The Magistrate’, the Soldier returns, demob happy, to build a career, and prepare for his next battle against old age. “The Bubble reputation” will be of little assistance here too!

The Charge of the Light Brigade
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

By Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Source: Poems (1917)

The Soldier
By Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Source: The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy
(W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1986)

By Edgar Wallace

A tent that is pitched at the base;
A wagon that comes from the night;
stretcher – and on it a Case;
A surgeon, who’s holding a light,
The Infantry’s bearing the brunt –
O hark to the wind-carried cheer!
A mutter of guns at the front;
A whimper of sobs at the rear.
And it’s War! Orderly, hold the light.
You can lay him down on the table; so.
Easily – gently! Thanks – you may go,’
And it’s War! But the part that is not for show.

A tent, with a table athwart,
A table that’s laid out for one;
A waterproof cover – and nought
But the limp, mangled work of a gun.
A bottle that’s stuck by the pole,
A guttering dip in the neck;
The flickering light of a soul
On the wondering eyes of The Wreck,
And it’s War! ‘Orderly, hold his hand.
I’m not going to hurt you, so don’t be afraid.
A ricochet! God! What a mess it has made!’
And it’s War! And a very unhealthy trade.

The clink of a stopper and glass:
A sigh as the chloroform drips:
A trickle of – what? on the grass,
And bluer and bluer the lips.
The lashes have hidden the stare…
A rent, and the clothes fall away…
A touch, and the wound is laid bare…
A cut, and the face has turned grey…
And it’s War! ‘Orderly, take It out.
It’s hard for his child, and it’s rough on his wife.
There might have been – sooner – a chance for his life
But it’s War! And – Orderly, clean this knife!’

Everyone Sang
By Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

By Anthony Slingsby