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fussell- the great war and modern memory

fussell- the great war and modern memory - satire oii...

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Unformatted text preview: satire oii Circumstance THOMAS HARDY. CLAIRVOYANT By mid-December, 1914, British troops had been fighting on the Con- tinent for over five months. Casualties had been shocking, positions had led into self-destructive stalemate, and sensitive people now per- ”,Sétt eeived that the war, far from promising'to be “over by Christmas," was '“"“'ng to extend itself to hitherto unimagined reaches of suffering and mnyi On December 19, 19:4, Lytton Strachey published a piece in the ,, 2w Statesman focusing on “the tragedies of whole lives and the long fatalities of human relationships." His language was dark. He spoke of events "mocks, terrible, gruesome. He noted that “the desolation is com- --plete” and recalled a phrase of Gibbon’s appropriate to the kind of irony he was contemplating: “the abridgment of hope." “If there is joy . . . , it is joy that is long since dead; and if there are smiles. they are sar- donical.” 1 But actually Strachey was not writin words he doesn't mention it. Instead. he [5 re ' most recent volume of poems; Satire: qf Circumstance, timber. 1914, but containing—with the exception of the p unironic “Men Who March Away." hastily added as a “Postscript"—— only poems written before the war. Many emanate from Hardy‘s per- sonal experience as far back as 1870. - As if by uncanny foresight, Hardy's volu ceiving the events of the war just beginning. terrible irony as the appropriate interpretative published in No- atriotic and me offers a medium for per- It does so by establishing a means. Although in these [41 ' _ The Great War and Modern Memo: poems the killer is tuberculosis rather th ' . . an the maehin ‘ " girqitic; of .lqaortal irony is one with which, in the nexte £11112» iii: 31“ lat is fWi become wholly familiar. The materials of the Y in; th ge y unerary: they are full of graves, headstones, “clay cadagziis " C226 fi . Otiist,h:k;i:;qnsif:iiiisn}trgThehfavorite rhetdrical situation is the speaking ' “. in t e grave~—like that of the k ' McCrae s in Flanders Fields"+sadly or ‘sardonically r333; :ltiiliriohhfir' and ' ‘ do“ rlsgtieg.s:thsqyn:ti:fl:i::: stlfizggy ironic li"il"i[emoirs. And irony of situa— Tw _ n . _ poems, I e “The Come nce of gra‘aénA(i:;sti£iliblished' in May. igra), which involve no vdigc: from Eh: months befEI-e thIgoem inftlhe collection is “Channel Firing," written five fuse offshore naval war. ere the occupants of a seaside cemetery con- Judgment on] t tgeunnery practice with the thunders of the Day of world is a; lit “1:2: bereassured by God that they are mistaken: "The men: Day 'He tenstqh —namely, brutal and stupid. The actual judg— tivc- , em, Will be conSIderably Warmer and more puni— “31:4 ghagfittenfstlilc irony. of situation—a wry enactment of Gibbon’s Gravegrnfirst o blope —'15 the one in “Ah, Are You Digging on M above . the v05; fished in December, 1913. Aware of a scratching sound grave: [5 it he [ rot: the grave asks repeatedly who it is who digs at her is bus [’5 .tr over. No, a'vmce answers; he was married yesterday and know yhat 11 one of her kinfolk planting memorial flowers? No they (a word WI1:11:23:tuigbliiowers does. no good. Is it then perhaps her “etiemy” in an easy revepu aiclkfvents Will soon weight uniquely) “prodding sly». worth harm “Ag: 0, her enemy, she is told, thinks her no longer speaker learg hn _ cares not where you lief Finally “giving up.” the her “little d2; ,t, glidsentity of the digger from the digger himself: he is war” complacency: news moves her to utter a stanza rich with “pre- “Ah, yes! You di 11 n in Why flashed itg “01:00“ nibgmve -. I I That one true heart was left behind! What feeling do we ever find To equal among human kind A dog's fidelity?" ' But the dog deprives h' ' . is mist ' i I wuh the world she’s left tmllindi;ess of event this comforting connection “Mistress, I dug upon your grave To bury a bone. in case ' seen the a be now .that year, ' [5] :e of Circumstance I should be hungry near this spot When passing on my daily trot. I am sorry, but I quite forgot It was your resting—place." If that points back to the eighteenth century, a poem like “Your Last 'e" (Written in December, 1912) reaches toWai‘d Robert Frost. Here irony of situation arises from a collision between innocence and mess. The speaker recalls how his friend recently admired the night _ of the lighted village from a place on the approaching rbad: . . . you told of the charm of that haloed View. The road from which the friend admired the bright town of the living 'ppened to run past the local cemetery, Where eight days later you were to lie. narrator, skilled in irony, could not have foretold how rudely Even the dmirer of lights would remove to the dark town of the dead, to . . . past love, praise,‘indifference, blame. '.The contrast between befOre and after here will remind us of the relation 7 between, say, the golden summer of 19i4 and the appalling December of although an even more compelling paradigm of that-contrast is :a-poem Hardy wrote in 1913, “After a Journey." The speaker seeks the idea of his dead beloved 'by revisiting the dramatic seacoast sites of their affair. He imagines her spirit saying; - Summer gave us sweets. but autumn wrought division. We know that regardless of literal fact or the special needs of the times, “summer" inpoems belongs conventionally to glad'ness and “autumn” to melancholy. But what will happen a year later will compel this tradi- tional figure toward the jokingly literal. Hardy's very private experience ' will be appropriated then as a very public one. A more obvious rendering of the irony of benign ignorance is “In the Cemetery," one of the fifteen brief “Satires of Circumstance" which give the volume its title. Now the speaker is the cemetery caretaker, who explains to a bystander how preposterous is the quarreling of a group of mothers over whose child lies in which grave. Actually. says the care- taker, when a main drain had to be laid across the cemetery, “. . . we moved the lot some nights ago, And packed them away in the general foss With hundreds more. But their folks don't know." [6] i The Great War and-Modern Memory Single grave, mass grave, main drain—it’s all one: . as well cry over a new-laid drain As anything else, to case your pain!" The idea of mass graves seems to pertain especially to the twentieth cen- tury. There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves, with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual place.” As Hardy prophesies, “. . . all their children were laid therein At different times, like sprats in a tin." The one ultimate Satire of Circumstance, as Hardy knows, is mortal- ity itself, “the wonder and the wormwood of the whole.” Death's mate- rial attendants and conditions, however noisome, fascinate universally, even as Edmund Blunden recognizes, recalling with gentle irony and sympathy a small satire of circumstance fifteen years after Hardy. He is remembering a wrecked French_civilian churchyard close to the front line and considering its odd appeal to the “morbid curiosity" of the troops, who crowded to gape at the open vaults and graves: Greenisb water stood in some of these pits; bones and skulls and decayed cerements there attracted, frequent soldiers past the “No Loitering" notice- board. Under the rcircumstances, an odd attraction indeed. Why should these mortalities lure those who ought ‘to be trying to forget mortality, ever, threatening ther‘n? Nearly corpses ourselves, by the mere _fact of standing near Ric-hebourg Church, how should we find the strange and the remote in these corpses? 3 I am not really arguing that Hardy, the master of situational irony, .“wrote” the Great War, although if wars were written the author of Time’s Laughing-Stash and The Dynam could certainly have written this one. From his imagination was available niore or less ready-made—and, certainly, well a priori—a vision, an action, and a tone superbly suitable for rendering an event constituting an immense and unprecedented Sat- ire of Circumstance. A traditional “tragic satire" (like Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes") is an accumulation of numerous small con- stituent satires. Likewise the great tragic satire which was the war will be seen to consist of its own smaller constituent satires, or ironic actions. Thus the literary Blunden regards a battlefield, thoroughly tom'up' and " ' Satire of Circumstance . <[7] littered with German equipment. as “this satire in iron brown-and field area” ‘ Glancing back thirty-one years later, Siegfried Sassoon recalled that ' during the War Hardy had been his “main admiration among living writers," and he acknowledged the debt of- his satirical poems about the war to the prewar ironies of Satire: quircummnoe.‘ Fit to take its place as a sixteenth 'Satire of Circumstance entirely consonant with Hardy‘s is a poem by Sassoon enacting this plot: “Brother officer giving white-haired mother fictitious account of her cold-footed son’s death at the front.” ° The poem is “The Hero": “Jack fell as he’d have wished," the Mother said, And folded up the letter that she‘d read. “The Colonel writes so nicely." Something broke In the tired voice that quavered to a choke. She half looked up. “We mothers are so proud Of our dead soldiers." Then her face was bowed. Quietly the Brother Officer went out. He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies That she would nourish all her days, no doubt. For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes _Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy, Because he'd been so brave, her. glorious boy. He tl'iOught how “Jack," coid-footed.rusele'ss swine, Had panicked down the trench that night the mine Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried To get sent home, and how, at last, he died, Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care Except that lonely .woman with white hair. Two nights before participating in the attack on the Somme—perhaps the most egregious ironic action of the whole war—Sassoon found him- self “huddledup in a little dog-kennel of a dug—out, reading Ten qf the D'Urbewflles.” " Clearly, there are some intersections of literature with I life that we have takeh-too little notice of.‘ THE- WAR AS IRONIC ACTION Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodra—' matically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the Great War eight [3,]; 'The Great War and Modern Memory million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke ' Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot. The Second World War offers even more preposterous ironies. Ostensibly begun to guaran- tee the sovereignty of Poland, that war managed to bring about Poland’s bondage and humiliation. Air bombardment, which was supposed to shorten the war, prolonged it by inviting those who were its targets to east themselves in the role of victim-heroes and thus stiffen their resolve. But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had do‘m— inated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress. The day after the British entered the war Henry James wrote a friend: - The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness . . . is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherousyears were all the while really making for'and meaning is too tragic for any words.“ James’s essential point was rendered in rowdler terms by a much smaller writer, Philip Gibbs, as he remembered the popularity during the war of what today would be called Black Humor; “The more revolting it was," he says, “the more . . . [people] shouted with laughter”: It was . . . the laughter of mortals, at the trick which had been played on them by an ironieai fate. They had been taught to believe that the whole ob: iect of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive, savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All po- etry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise. Now that ideal was broken like a china vase dashed to the ground. The contrast between That and This was devastating. . . . The war—time humor of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled .9 The British fought the war for four years and three months. its poten- tial of ironic meaning, considered not now in relation to the complacen- cies of the past but in itself alone, emerges when we consider its events chronologically. The five last months of 1914, starting August 4., when the British declared war on the Central Powers, began with free maneu- ver in Belgium and Northern France and ended with both sides locked into the infamous trench system. .Before this stalemate, the British engaged in one major retreat and fought two large battles, although battle: is perhaps 'not the best word, having been visited upon these _ A satire of Circumstance - - _ [9] events by subsequent historiography in the interest of neatness and the assumption of something like a rational causality. To' call these-things battle: is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier British his- tory and to imply that the war makes sense in‘ a traditional way. As E'srné Wingfield-Stratford points out,- “A vast literature has been pro- duced in the attempt to bring [the Great War] into line with other wars by highlighting its so—called battles by such impressive names as Loos, Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele. . . ." W This is to try to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning. The maior‘tetreat was the Retreat from Mons on August 24, necessi— . tated when Sir John French'sfour- divisions—the whole of the British - force engaged—found themselves outflanked. In early September this 're- treatl'merged into the first of the “battles," known as the Marne,- where the British and- the French gradually stopped the German advance on Paris, although at a-oost of half a million casualties on each side. Pres vented from going through to Paris, the Germans sought an opening fur- ther north, and each side now began trying to-turn its enemy's western flank with the obiect of winning the war rapidly and economically; it was still thought by some that this was a compassable‘ object. The ensuing maneuvers during late October and early November are variously mis- named “The First Battle of Ypres” and “The Race to the Sea"——that is, i to the Belgian seapoi'ts. The' journalistic formula “The Race to the " was ready to hand, familiar through its use in i909 to describe 'Peary’s “Race to the (North) Pole" against Cook. Rehabilitated and ap- sportsmanlike, Explorer Clu‘b overtone, suggesting that what was hap- - pening was not too far distant from playing games, running races, and competing in a thoroughly decent way. i - _By the middle of November these exertions had all but wiped out the original British army. At the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand fiVe feet eight to get into the army. By October 1: the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. And on be only five feet three to get in.11 The permanent trenchline had been dug running from Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, all the way to the Swiss border, with the notorious Ypres Salient built in. The perceptive; could already see what the war was going to be like. As early as Octo- ' ber, 1914, Captain G. B. Pollard wrote home, using gingerly a-novel word whose implications would turn more and more ghastly as time went on: “It’s absolutely certainly a war of ‘attrition,’ as somebody said ; plied to these new events, the phrase had the advantage of a familiar , November 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of October, one had to _ l [10] . . The Great War and Modern Memory here the other day, and we have .got to stick it longer than the other side and go on producing men, money. and material until they cry quits. and that's all about it, as far as I can see.” 1‘ Lord Kitchenenwas one who agreed with Captain Pollard. Near the end of October he issued his call for 300,000 volunteers. Most of them would be expended on the Somme in 19:6. The first Christmas of the war saw an absolute deadlock in the trenches. Both Britishand German soldiers observed an informal, ad bar: Christmas Day truce, meeting in No Man’s Land to exchange cigarets and 'to take snapshots. Outraged, the Staff forbad this ever to.happen . again. The new year, 1915, brought the repeated failure of British attempts to break through the German line and to unleash the cavalry in pursuit. They failed, first, because of insufficient artillery preparation—for years no one had any idea how much artillery fire Would be needed to destroy the German barbed wire and to reach the solid German deep dugouts; second, because of insufficient reserves for exploiting a suddenly appar- ent weakness; and third, because the British attacked on excessively nar- row frontages,.enabling every part of .the' ground gained to be brought 7 under retaliatory artillery fire. 7 However, the first failed attack of 19: 5 was not British but German. The area selected was near Ypres, and the fracas has been named the Second Battle‘of Ypres, or simply Second Ypres. On April :2, after discharging chlorine gas from cylinders, the Germans attacked and ad- vanced three miles. But then they faltered for lack of reserves. Gas had first been used by the Germans on October 27, 1914, when they fired a prototype of modern tear gas from artillery near Ypres. The German use of gas—soon to be imitated by the British—was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as Liddell Hart points out, gas is "‘the least inhumane of modern weapons." Its bad press was the result of its novelty: “It was novelvand therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which‘condones abuses but detests innovations." 1" In the late-April at— tack at Ypres the British were virtually unprotected against gas—the “box respirator" was to come later—«and even though the line was sub- stantially held, the cost was 60,000 British casualties. A few weeks later it was the British turn. On March 10 the first of the aborted British offensives was mounted at Neuve Chapelle. The attack was only 2000' yards wide, and, although it was successful at first, it died for lack of reserves and because the narrow frontage invited too 'much ret- ributive German artillery. Again the British tried, on May 15 at Fes- - tubert,-and with similar results: initial success turned to disaster. Going through the line was beginning to look impossible. It was thus essential :A Satire of Circumstance . [I l] to entertain hopes of going around it, even if going around took one as far away as Gallipoli, 2200 miles southeast of the Western Front,.where the troops had begun landing on April 2'5. ' , Imagining themselves instructed by these occasions of abridged hope at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert, the British mounted a larger attack ' near Loos on September {5. Six divisions went forward at once, and this time the attack was preceded not only by the customary artillery barrage but by the discharge of what Robert Graves tells us was euphemized as “the accessory”—cylinders of chlorine gas.“ Most of it blew back into the British trenches, and the...
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