Sunday, 26 January 2014

Paxman's Great War

Actually, the title of the BBC's new "flagship" documentary series on World War I is Britain's Great War, and it begins on BBC1 in a few days' time.  No doubt most of you have already heard the criticisms of the selection of Jeremy Paxman as the series presenter, so we won't dwell on the question of whether he actually knows enough about the subject.  Paxman himself has weighed in on the side of historian Richard Evans in the great debate the latter has been having with the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove about whether "the Left" belittles the efforts of the British Tommy and his allies by going against the current trend of viewing the war as justified and inevitable.

We won't go into that either.  I have a pretty good idea of what members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship think.  Siegfried didn't hate the Germans; neither did he hate the generals, as some of his poetry might lead us to think.  His motivation for refusing to fight on in 1917 is fully described in the "Soldier's Declaration" and we need look no further.  He may have been suffering from what would now be called "post-traumatic stress", but he had not completely lost his reason.  The fashionable suggestion that we should view the bottom-up view of the war presented by Sassoon and Owen as somehow inferior by comparison with the top-down view presented in official histories is generally disregarded by our members. Ordinary people have, for many years now, been reading the poetry and memoirs of those who fought the war, and have found them simultaneously disconcerting and inspiring.  The fact that the authors were viewing the war from a particular perspective does not invalidate their views.

In the current issue of Radio Times, the BBC presents its schedule for commemorating the centenary of the war, and it is a combination of the predictable and the imaginative.  On Radio 4, you can listen to a 100-hour drama series, beginning in August, called Home Front.  37 Days, a three-part drama on BBC2, will chart the story of the events leading up to the war.  We can also look forward to the inevitable fictionalised portrayal of wartime nurses (personally I would have preferred a repeat of Testament of Youth), starring the BBC's current pet actresses and Charlie Chaplin's Spanish-born granddaughter.

Documentaries we can look forward to include Royal Cousins of War and Teenage Tommies, both on BBC2 - I think those titles speak for themselves.  Tommy and Jerry's Camera, on BBC4, will attempt to look at life in the trenches from both sides of the conflict.  Equally interesting to most Sassoonists, I suspect, will be the cultural contribution, though largely confined to radio (The Ballads of the Great War on Radio 2 and Music in the Great War on Radio 3).  Admirers of Andrew Graham-Dixon can, however, loo forward to Artists of War on BBC4; I see that he is "exploring the work of three British artists" and can't help thinking "what about all the others?".

The commemorative service at Westminster Abbey will be held on 4th August and broadcast live, as will the morning service at Glasgow Cathedral and the ceremony at St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons.  The Battle of Mons marked the start of fighting in earnest between British and German forces.  Many of the British were reservists - new conscripts hadn't completed their training yet - and found themselves driven back by the sheer fire-power of the opposition.  Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment, the first British soldier to be killed in action in 1914, had died two days earlier and is buried at St Symphorien, as are George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers and George Price, a Canadian infantryman, both of whom were killed shortly before the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918.  It makes this cemetery a particularly appropriate place to commemorate the war.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Hydra v Siegfried's Journal

I’ve been invited to attend the opening, next month, of the new “Rivers Suite” at Craiglockhart – a conference and function suite that includes a “Siegfried Room” and a “Wilfred Room”.  This started me thinking forward to 2017 and the centenary of the two men’s first meeting, which we will of course be celebrating, in collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association.  If anyone has any doubts about whether we should be celebrating the centenary of the war, there can surely be no one who will object to a celebration of the centenary of that significant meeting.

This led me on to look at Napier University’s on-line archive of material relating to the First World War, which contains some fascinating memorabilia dating from the days of Siegfried’s incarceration at what he called “Dottyville”.  You can find an on-line catalogue here:   Most interesting of these documents, to my mind, are copies of The Hydra, a newsletter produced by and for the inmates, which can be browsed on-line.  The magazine, which owes its title to the origins of the building in which they lodged, as a “Hydro” or health spa, was famously edited by Owen, who approached Sassoon to persuade him to “write something” for its pages.

The Hydra, as was doubtless intended, is a cosy publication, and includes an “Arrivals” section in which newcomers such as 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon (RWF) are welcomed; his name appears in number 8, dated August 4th, 1917.  In the editorial at the beginning of the same issue, an “overheard” conversation is related, in which other ranks discuss the meaning of the word “Hydra”.   The most learned of the participants comes out with this gem: “A ‘ydra’s a ‘undred ‘eaded serpent, and the ‘eads grew again as fast as cut off, signifyin’ these ‘ere officers at Craiglockhart, for as soon as one gets too uppish, like, they cut ‘im off the strength, an’ another comes up in ‘is place.”  The wit in question was probably unfamiliar with the reasons for Sassoon’s presence and did not know that he had actually been brought to Craiglockhart for being rather too “uppish”.

In issue no 10, dated 1st September, along comes the hoped-for contribution from Sassoon, in the form of that favourite poem of Dennis Silk’s, “Dreamers”.  Like many of the other original contributions, it is signed only with the author’s initials “S.S.”

The literary quality of the content would appear to have deteriorated somewhat with the advent of a new editor following Owen’s departure, and my attention was drawn to a letter printed in the July 1918 edition, from a Miss Violet Loraine.  I got excited on seeing this surname, thinking that the lady was possibly a relation of the Rev Loraine to whom Siegfried owed his unusual middle name and had perhaps heard of his presence there.  However, on further investigation I discovered that Miss Loraine was born Violet Tipton and adopted the surname as her stage name when she became a music hall star.  She became particularly associated with the song “If You Were the Only Girl in the World”, which she first sang as a duet with George Robey in 1916.

Miss Loraine writes encouragingly to the occupants of Craiglockhart to tell them “how proud I and all Britain’s women are of you and our splendid men”.  She bemoans her female status thus: "We women cannot go to war and fight, as you have done, but we are doing our best."  In words we would probably deride for their sentimentality nowadays, she goes on to say that "we are comrades all, meeting the most diabolical foe that ever trod God's earth, as one, shoulder to shoulder, we stand for liberty."  Punctuation was evidently not her strong point.  Nevertheless, I give her full marks for what she was doubtless attempting to do, making these men who had suffered so much feel that they were still part of the national effort and deserved praise for the service they had already given.

There is something about The Hydra that reminds me a little of our own publication, Siegfried’s Journal.  There is a kind of homeliness about it, as if to say, “If you are reading this, you understand me and I understand you”.  The group that had access to The Hydra was of course smaller than the readership of Siegfried’s Journal,  but ours remains a compact group.  I was complimented recently by a member on the sheer friendliness of the SSF, and it was suggested that this in some ways stems from Sassoon’s own sociability.   He was in many ways a shy man, but evidently he had a charisma that drew people to him and continues to do so.  In the Journal, however, we don’t only write about Sassoon (though connections will keep springing up, as they have been doing throughout my brief history of blogging). 

Siegfried’s Journal is, like The Hydra, a dual-purpose publication.  Under Owen’s editorship, the latter became a lifeline to the inmates of “Dottyville”.  How they must have looked forward to each new issue, keeping them up to date with the latest news, full of humour and fellow-feeling!  Despite its informality, it contained contributions of real literary merit, as well as many mediocre ones; this latter is one respect in which it differs from our Journal, which is painstakingly edited to present even the most mundane of contributions in the best possible light.  Shell-shocked officers would not, probably, have responded well to having their spelling and grammar corrected, whereas contributors to the Journal are only too pleased to be able to call on the support of skilled proof-readers and editors.

Looking back over past editions of Siegfried’s Journal, I am drawn to the humorous, friendly tone of many of the articles, as well as to the scholarly nature of others.  There are not many magazines that offer such an eclectic mix.  Articles that stand out in the memory include Christian Major’s hilarious – though heavily censored - account of the memorable minibus trip to Boar’s Hill in 2008 and Freddy Rottey’s imaginative musings on his visit to the Reform Club in the same issue (gosh, what an excellent read number 15 was!)  Aunt Evelyn’s problem page arose from the fact that there are so many little snippets of information that cannot be easily fitted into an article, and the occasional obituary allows us to pay tribute to all the members who have made this such a great society, as well as others who have contributed to Sassoon scholarship.    We have, over the years, published several original poems as well as rediscovering obscure or forgotten poets and novelists, and, more recently, have been allowed the privilege of printing extracts from a remarkable PhD thesis by the late Theodore W Bogacz (by kind permission of his wife Cynthia Haggard).

I would like to think that the bi-annual publication produced by our own small editorial team bears favourable comparison with what Wilfred Owen achieved as a one-man operation.  Just as reading The Hydra makes you long to be “on the spot”,  I defy anyone to read Siegfried’s Journal without thinking either “How lucky I am to be a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship!” or “I wish I belonged to this wonderful group of kindred spirits!”

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Guest Post: by Jack Sturiano, Vietnam veteran

I loved the recent 1914 post because it evokes that elusive state that existed before war that is forever lost once it comes. That blissful Eden, perhaps of ignorance or just plain "human uneventfulness", as Siegfried says about much of life in Siegfried's Journey, where the "idea of oblivion attracts him after life's fitful struggle".  I also learned some American history of which I was unaware.

In April 1965 I joined the US Navy. In March 1965 a battalion of Marines had landed at Danang.  I did not know this. I joined under a program called 120-day delay - the object being to have the recruit finish high school.  I signed for a 4-year enlistment.  My father went with me.  There was a draft then and, since I had neither the grades nor the money nor the wish to go to college, if I didn't enlist I would have been drafted into the US Army. I turned eighteen in May and graduated on June 30th and was in boot camp on July 9th.

I had been there a few weeks when, one Sunday morning, a fellow recruit came running in with a newspaper that we weren't supposed to have and stated to us all "we’re at war with Vietnam!"  I was truly shocked.  Vietnam?  I had never heard of the place. In those days that part of the world was always referred to as Indochina, never as its individual states.

The newspaper article was in response to more marines having landed in Danang. That fellow that day said something very prophetic.  He said we were at war. The USA never declared war, and went out of its way not even to use the word, but it was war none the less.  After the war the USA didn't want to call it “war”.  It was the Vietnam "ERA" and we were its veterans.  I always thought it should have been “ERROR".

I was a boy, "ardent for some desperate glory".  Our parents brought us Vietnam and my high school that had so many smart kids graduated 730 of us on that June day.  Most went to college; a dozen, like me, went into the military. My high school probably graduated more draft dodgers than veterans.

I passed by one day a few years back. They actually had erected a small memorial to those alumni that had died in Vietnam. I knew one of the fellows very well. We used to work together stacking cans at a supermarket and taking beer as well as we left on Saturday nights for dances. He had a beautiful sister.

We never thought of war or saw it coming.