One of the more memorable lines from Blackadder Goes Forth, the BBC comedy series set against the backdrop of the Western Front and life in the trenches, was uttered by the inimitable Rik Mayall, playing the arrogant, over-the-top flying-ace Lord Flashheart:
“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it, doesn’t mean that I’m not sick of this damn war: the blood, the noise, the endless poetry.”
(See it on this YouTube clip.)
The endless poetry. There was indeed a hell of a lot of poetry written during the First World War. Today, other forms of communication are more popular. But back then, particularly for the educated officer class, poetry had a currency that it has since lost.
Newspapers of the time were full of poems about the war – some of them horribly jingoistic. Yet today it is hard to think of the Great War for any length of time without at some point being reminded of the outstanding poetry that came out of it, by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in particular. That terrible war has cast a long shadow, and poetry has been integral in the keeping that conflict present in the popular imagination.
The period’s high water mark, for this reader at least, is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, which begins one of the most memorable opening lines in English poetry: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”
But what has this to do with the stitched-together panorama of the South Downs at the top of this post?
The photograph is a view northeast towards the West Sussex village of Keymer. I took the picture (three pictures in fact, fused together inexpertly in Photoshop) the other weekend on a walk along the Downs in glorious sunshine from Hassocks by way of the Devil’s Dyke to Upper Beeding.
By coincidence, I have recently been watching the DVD of the BBC’s 1979 dramatisation of Vera Brittain’s autobiographical Testament of Youth. I vividly remember watching this mini-series when it was first broadcast: it helped shape my perception of the First World War in no small measure.
It is a superb adaptation with fine performances, particularly from Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain, a series that makes brilliantly effective use of judiciously selected poetry of the period, read as voiceover by the actor Gary Watson.
At the same time, I have been reading the book on which the series was based. Fittingly subtitled on the cover, “a haunting elegy for a lost generation”, the heart of the memoir details Brittain’s experience of the First World War, during which she worked as a VAD nurse and endured the deaths of first her fiancé and later her brother, as well as two of their closest friends.
Vera Brittain’s fiancé was a brilliant young man achiever called Roland Leighton, who tragically died in the trenches in December 1915, just days before he was due to return on leave to Britain and be reunited with Vera. Which brings us to the South Downs.
In her memoir, Brittain relates how she travelled from Brighton to Keymer soon after her fiancé’s death to visit Leighton’s grieving parents, who were renting a cottage in the West Sussex village on the edge of the Downs.
She arrived with grim timing, to find the parents gazing on their deceased son’s blood-soaked army kit, which had just been returned to them by the army, standard practice apparently.
Vera Brittain reported in a letter to her brother:
“Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud… All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.”
“If you had been [there] you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory.”
Up there on the South Downs, I thought of Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. The thought of such terrible times and such unspeakable loss provided a poignant counterpoint to the simple pleasure of our walk from the station at Hassocks, up Wolstenbury Hill and along the Downs, delighting all the while in a landscape of such beauty.
In January 1915, as Vera Brittain went to visit her late fiancé’s parents, she was struck by the disjuncture between the gentle Sussex landscape and the wider horror that had now engulfed her world.
“In the damp lanes between Hassocks and Keymer the birds sang loudly. How I hated them as I walked back to the station one late afternoon, when a red sunset turned the puddles on the road into gleaming pools of blood, and a new horror of mud and death darkened my mind with its dreadful obsession. Roland, I reflected bitterly, was now part of the corrupt clay into which war had transformed the fertile soil of France; he would never again know the smell of a wet evening in early spring.”
Had history taken a different turn, you could imagine that Roland Leighton might have been inspired by the natural beauty we enjoyed that Saturday to pen some verse.
Leighton would never return home, but he did write one truly memorable poem while on the Western Front, which was discovered after his death in an exercise book in his haversack. Written a month before his death, it is a very different kind of poem to those of Owen and Sassoon – an intimate, tender piece of verse.
The poem is used twice in the BBC’s dramatisation of Testament of Youth to powerful effect. Addressing Vera, Leighton foresees his death, and in imagining his fiancé’s future life without him, sets her free; gives his blessing to her future without him.
Hedauville, November 1915
The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill
Are waiting for you still.
Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples at your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, sweet.
And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go –
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)
It will be better so.
It’s that poignant parenthetical line, “(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)” that makes lifts the poem so gracefully. It is a line that intrigued me when I first watched Testament of Youth on TV as a 15-year-old and still does so today.
Her experiences during the Great War led Vera Brittain to become a committed pacifist. Sadly, the “war to end all wars” was anything but. And the profound mistakes made in its aftermath would help sow the seeds for the Second World War.
By that time, Brittain was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and would become a vociferous critic of area bombing by the Allies, a view which one can imagine did not win her many friends.
She argued that there was no evidence that saturation bombing would shorten the war, and that the policy amounted to collective punishment of the German people, which she felt unjust.
Truly, a remarkable woman.
More about ‘Testament of Youth’, both the book and TV series, in future posts.