Friday, 14 November 2014

World War One Poetry

My Favourite WW1 Poem

Most people will have studied some poetry from the First World War during their time at school. Many of these poems are read or printed each year in the run up to November 11th. Amongst the most ‘popular’ are the haunting and bitter ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, the poignant ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the idealistic but tragic ‘The Soldier’. All poems from this genre reveal some aspect of the horror from the trenches of France and Belgium.

My favourite poem from this period is one that doesn’t crop up too often. I learnt this whilst at school and it conveyed to me everything that I needed to know about the war. ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon is one of the shortest poems about World War One. At 7 lines it is remarkably short to communicate the futility of the war. But it does just that.

It starts off in a terribly breezy, very British way with an old General wishing the passing troops ‘good morning’. Initially he comes across as a friendly guy, just one of the men. However, the darker side of the poem comes in when we learn that most of the troops he says hello to are dead. The poem then goes on to comment about the inadequacy of the army leadership. We then get to meet (briefly) two British Tommies, Harry and Jack; we have a personal insight of this meeting. They seem to epitomize the decency of the ordinary British soldier and his unquestioning nature. Harry’s response is simply that the old major is a happy soul. The poem then ends with the abrupt news that both of the soldiers have died due to the detached and ultimately useless general. 

Unlike the graphic nature of Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ with a detailed account of watching a soldier die from a gas attack or the almost dreamy nature of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ mulling over how his death will some how be glorious in turning foreign soil English, ‘The General’ shows in a short regimented way the poorly thought out tactics of many commanders in the First World War and their terrible consequences. The contrast between the General’s pleasant demeanour and the outcome of the Battle of Arras, which resulted in the deaths of thousands pinpointed for me the gaping chasm in those that did the fighting and those that didn’t. Whilst the General comes across as a nice old buffer, his apparent detachment or complete incompetence with military tactics and what is actually happening at the front, is clearly conveyed. In 7 lines the reader can really believe the  rumours of Commanders sitting in grand country houses miles behind the front line sipping claret, whilst ordinary soldiers were perishing in the mud and bullets of the Western Front. All in all it is a deceptively simple yet terribly powerful poem.

The reason why I like this poem is exactly because it’s simple. The length makes it very accessible and as a child I actually memorised it. I like the image of the apparently good natured old General cheering his weary troops up with a sprightly ‘hello’. It makes us feel that all of the top brass aren’t so bad. I also liked the two Tommies, Harry and Jack. One could almost see them marching along through the French countryside to be met by this old military man. The way Harry ‘grunts’ to his mate that ‘E’s a cheery old card’ made me like the seemingly good natured soldiers. And then we learn in the last line that both of these men are to become victims of this General’s ‘plan of attack’. So the seemingly benign old boy has actually got them killed. A clear, simple snapshot of the brutal and often short life for a front-line soldier on the Western Front.

The General

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did them both by his plan of attack.

This post was written by Andy Mackay, KS3 & IGCSE Co-Ordinator at Blackhen Education.