Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two Laments for Cologne 30th May 1942 -First Thousand Bomber Raid

                 Cologne 30th May 1942  -Thousand Bomber Raid 
                                             Mary E. Harrison/Vera Brittain


                                         The National Archives UK (Mass bomber raid on Cologne)-artist unknown

          On the night of 30th May 1942/31st May 1942 the first of Bomber Command's Thousand Bomber Raids was directed against Cologne.  Found two poems related to the attack, both by British women. 

Mary E. Harrison 

 As a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) and an artist, Mary E. Harrison made a model of Cologne that was used in the planning of the raid of 30th May/31st May 1942. She was horrified to see photographs of the results of the bombing, which inspired her poem 'My Hands'

The poem was published in two Oasis Salamander Trust anthologies,  'More Poems of the Second World War ;the Oasis Selection''. (1989), also in 'The Voice of War' Poems of the Second World War ' (1995) . Then again in  'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited by Anne Powell, ( 1999). Not clear when it was first written or published. 

The biographical information on Mary in the 1995 'Oasis' anthology advised that she trained as a model maker at RAF Nuneham Courtney, Oxfordshire, and posted to Allied Central Interpretation Unit (Photographic Intelligence) RAF Medmenham , Bucks. 'My Hands' is the only poem that I have found by her in print, or referenced on line.

The poem's strength is the way that  forged connections between an artist's model and  reality. There is no attempt to talk about war in oblique detached terms. 

My Hands

" Do you know what it is like to have death in your hands?
When you haven't a murderer's mind?
Do you know how it feels when you could be the cause
Of a child being blind?.
How many people have died through me
From the skill in my finger tips?
For I fashion the clay and portray the landscape
As the fliers are briefed for their trips."

I have reproduced the first verse, a longer extract can be found on the Oasis Trust Website

Vera Brittain  

Vera Brittain was a pacifist  during World War 2, and leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. Though more famous for her writing relating to World War 1, Vera wrote extensively about World War 2 as well. 

Lament for Cologne 

"You stood so proudly on the flowing Rhine,
Your history mankind's, your climbing spires
Crowned with the living light that man desires
To gild his path from bestial to divine
Today, consumed by war's unpitying fires,
You lie in ruins,weeping for your dead
Your shattered monuments the funeral pyres

Perhaps, when passions die and slaughters cease
The mothers on whose homes destruction fell,
Who waiting sought their children through the hell
Of London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, 
Will seek Cologne's sad women, unafraid
And cry's God's cause is ours. Let there be peace.! " 

Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Bostridge and T.J. Brittain-Catlin, Literary Executors for the Estate of Vera Brittain 1970.

The poem was re-published in Vera's 'Seed of Chaos' (1944) ,but  originally published in 'The Friend' magazine on 19th June 1942. 'Seeds of Chaos' contained a  survey of Allied attacks on German cities. Vera stated that  Cologne had been subjected to repeated raids as from 30th May 1942 and by the time of writing the devastation of this  city was the equivalent of 'seventeen Coventries ' ; a reference to the notorious Coventry air raid of the 14th November 1940. In her memoir of 1925- 1950, 'Testament of Experience' ( 1957),, Vera claimed that  "news bulletins, boasted that 70,000 were killed or injured " during the 30th May 1942 night raid on Cologne : RAF figures mention 500 dead, with 5,000 injured. 

I am fascinated, and sometimes exasperated, by the writing of Vera Brittain and other pacifists of World War 2. The hopeless naivete, , the endless call for 'negotiations' with Germany when Appeasement had clearly failed, and their  lack of any coherent tactics to oppose Nazism. Moreover, I totally understand criticism  that the deaths incurred during the raid on Cologne 30th May 1942 are not extensive  compared with the millions of casualties incurred during the Eastern Front, the Holocaust. the Japanese invasion of China, the vast numbers of Polish slave labourers worked to death by the Germans, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha let loose in Yugoslavia, and more. 

 I can even see the objection that George Orwell and also some 'absolutist' pacifists had, albeit from opposing viewpoints, that Vera and the Bombing Restriction Committee were somehow trying to 'humanize' war via campaigning against the 'saturation' bombing of cities. 

But it's hard to remain aloof when Vera connects Cologne with other bombed cities of Europe. Her poem was drawing on the notion that there is something essential about all human experience during a bombing raid. That there's still a human price to pay in fighting even a 'just' war. Poetry is an obvious vehicle to remind one of this fact. Most of all, a writer of Vera's standing, publishing a statement lamenting the German losses that resulted from RAF bombing, was a courageous act in 1942. 

'Seed of Chaos' was reprinted along with 'Humiliation of Honour' under the title 'One Voice-Pacifist Writings from the Second World War' -Vera Brittain, with a foreword by Shirley Williams. ( Continuum, 2005) 

An alternative view : George Orwell v, Vera Brittain

George Orwell was highly critical of 'Seed of Chaos' . 

 " Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of 'limiting' or 'humanizing' (sic) war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bother to examine catchwords. "

Tribune 19th May 1944.

The George Orwell v. Vera Brittain disagreement re-emerged in recent years, with an accusation that Vera falsely claimed that George Orwell changed his views on civilian bombing  in her book 'Testament of Experience' , which was  published well after Orwell's death in 1950.  The Orwell Society website  below links to a piece 'Vera Brittain v. George Orwell' by Richard Westwood , from February 12th 2012. 

Orwell Society

Friday, 5 May 2017

Latest News May 2017 and some thoughts on Keidrych Rhys

                            Latest news 

                                            Image: Nijmegen, kerkhof Graafseweg, monument vergissingsbombardement 
                                          ( to commemorate the casualties from the Allied bombardment of  22nd February 1943)
                                           With thanks to Wikipedia commons 

The Great War at Sea Poetry 'Weebly' website has now closed. Thank you to everyone who has offered support over the last three years.  Posts from the website have been archived at

Have been very pleased to publish 'The World is a Broken Place' parts 1 & 2 ', interview with Professor John Guzlowski , and his writing about his parents' experience as Polish slave labourers during World War 2 and the family's subsequent lives as 'Polack' immigrants to the US. His last collection of poetry and short prose 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues' has already been reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.
Full interview is also to be found at

I have written an article about the poetry of the North African campaign 1940-1943 which the Second World War Experience Centre (SSWEC)  are considering publishing in their magazine 'Everyone's War'- and on line-  later this year,  Their website can be found here. SWWEC.


                                                        Keidrych Rees                                          

                                                     image courtesy of the National Gallery 
                                                     Photo of Kedrych Rhys taken in 1943.

Currently reading Keidrych Rhys  'The Van Pool : Collected Poems'  edited by Charles Mundye, published by Seren, 2012. Extremely helpful in supplying biographical information and also great to have a definitive collection of Rhys' work. 

                             "Worse than branched antlers in the blood stream
                             Worse than the tapping pain of madness in the veins
                             For grieving mother's is her boy's death
                             In the smoke -plumed spinning reaches of smooth air."
                             'Lament '

This collection reprints the whole of the original book ' The Van Pool and Other Poems' that was first published in 1942. Further poems are added, along with translations from Welsh that  Keidrych Rhys  worked on. 

 Keidrych Rhys ( 1915- 1987)  was born William Ronald Rees Jones, and took the name Keidrych Rhys in 1940. He served in the London Welsh Regiment as an anti-aircraft gunner after being called up in 1940, and was stationed in Kent during the Battle of Britain, later in Suffolk, and also at Scapa Flow.  In 1943, Rhys was invalided out of the army after a spell at Northfield Hospital , near Birmingham, which specialised in treating psychiatric conditions.

Rhys was married to the poet Lynette Roberts from 1939- 1949.  He edited the magazine 'Wales'  from 1937- 1949, a publication crucial to the development of 'Anglo-Welsh' culture though there was a three year intermission due to the War from 1940-1943.:

"No, I'm not an Englishman with a partisan religion

My root lie in another region
Though ranged alongside yours' "

-'Tragic Guilt'

His contribution to World War 2 poetry is immense, Keidrych Rees edited an anthology titled ' Poems from the Forces' in 1941, and its successor ' More Poems From The Forces -A Collection of Verses By Serving Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force' published in 1943 .This anthology included some of Keith Douglas' earlier work (before the 'War in the Desert' poetry) , and also featured work by Alun Lewis and Gavin Ewart.  By contrast to World War 1, it seemed that war poetry anthologies were slow to emerge in World War 2. 1943 also saw the publication of the classic anthology 'Oasis -The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces' ,a Cairo based initiative

Death of a Hurricane Pilot 

Too late; the Pilot dead inside
An RAF officer soon came but interrogated nothing,
More concerned with the marvellous stress of aluminium 
Gee what stress they take-wizard workmanship"

- 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot'

The Poem 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot ' is perhaps the most famous poem that Rhys wrote. Marking the death of a Belgian pilot Roger Emile d' Cannart  D'Hamale  fighting for Britain in the , 46 Sqdn, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, shot down over Kent on 1st November 1940 . He subsequently was re-buried at the Brussels Town Cemetery Belgian Airmen's Field of Honour.  Rhys' poem depicts a scene of indifference to the fate of the dead pilot. An RAF official is more interested on the crash landing's impact on the plane's wreckage. The behaviour of the rest of the crowd is worse.

 "Children, ghastly souvenir hunters, forty yards away, kick the skull."

Keidrych Rhys was friends  with some of  the literary luminaries of the time.  Dylan Thomas was his best man, borrowed a suit from fellow poet Vernon Watkins for the occasion. Rhys also managed to maintain a presence  with the Fitzrovia  literary set whilst stationed in Kent, and was therefore ideal to develop what we would now call a network to stimulate the genre of  World War 2 poetry.

But in regard to World War 2 related literature,  he somehow lost momentum . Something made him move away from a role of being a literary advocate for World War 2 poetry. And his work offers us a clue- 'Poem Being Invalided Out Of Army '  -which was  written long after the 'Van Pool'  collection -   refers to " Terrible accusing patterns  "  that seem ingrained to a discharged man's mind, making him belong to a category of

" despised anonymous personalities
admonished by the other half from whose callous sanity
the whole mad recognising world is unanimous in self-redemption."

A  review of Lynette Roberts collected poems by Alan Tucker, written in 2010 , which suggested that Rhys had gone AWOL in 1942. If correct, Keidrych Rhys would be the only other  known World War 2  poet to have absconded besides Vernon Scannell. 

Keidrych Rhys, as a literary editor, went on to promote the work of R.S. Thomas and John Cooper Powys. Along with Lynette Roberts, he encouraged Robert Graves writing of 'The White Goddess' . Three provisional extracts from this book were published in the magazine 'Wales'. 

A longer article about Keidrych Rhys will follow. 

For more information

Lynette Roberts

Monday, 27 March 2017

John Guzlowski - Memory Unfolded

             John Guzlowski - 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues '

At the moment I am meant to be running one website and two blogs related to War Poetry.  All the material has now been merged into one on-line resource and will be available to read soon. 

 And said new website will feature a long interview with John Guzlowski, who uses poetry to retell the experiences of his Polish parents, both as slave labourers for the Third Reich, and then as Polish immigrants to the USA. 

Whilst I am looking forward to publishing a full interview, here is a review of his collection 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues- Memories Unfolded' ; I placed a slightly amended version on Amazon UK.

John also runs an excellent blog titled Lightning and Ashes about the experiences of the Polish people under Nazi Occupation and its aftermath. 

-Michael Bully 

Review of Echoes of Tattered Tongues 

“We came with heavy suitcases
made from wooden boards by brothers
we left behind, came from Buchenwald
and Katowice and before that
Lwow, our mother’s true home

Came with our tongues
in tatters, our teeth in our pockets
hugging on ourselves, our bodies
stiff like frightened ostriches.”


A son of a Polish immigrants , with both parents spending years as labourers in German concentration camps, Professor Guzlowski uses poetry and short pieces of prose to convey their experiences. John Guzlowski was born just after World War 2 in a Displaced Persons camp, and moved with his parents and sister to the USA 1951.

 The writer  initially turned his back on Polish culture and the stigma of being considered a  ‘‘dumb Polack" by those hostile to immigrants, stating that “ I began running from my otherness as soon as I could.” The young John Guzlowski wanted to “ spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Foolishness” along with what his mother called her 'concentration camp shit'. 

As a consequence, he began immersing himself in American Literature, movies and rock n roll. But gives the impression that once he had constructed an American identity, he began to realise
“Really there aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and other DPs” ( displaced persons).

Most of the poems depict the systematic brutality and cruelty of the German occupation and concentration camp life : German soldiers appear in Poland “ like buffaloes , terrible and big” ,

“Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mother’s farm
killed her sister’s baby
with their heels
shot my grandma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times…”

-‘My mother was Nineteen’

John Guzlowsi's mother was taken away to be deported to Germany as a concentration camp labourer, whilst other members of the families were killed.

“She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.”

-’What the War Taught Her’

Professor Guzlowski’s father also experience the trauma of the camps, losing an eye in the process:

“He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark,
he ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
he ate what would kill a man….

“And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that. “

It’s the starkness of the poetry and it’s lack of romance, along with the economy of language that gives John  Guzlowski’s work such strength. 

Also  the details of concentration life, the fact that his mother faced her first winter in the camps with only the clothes that she was wearing when captured. A guard took her away, raped her, but then left her to live and work with the cattle for warmth.

There’s also a strange enchantment in his work such as in ‘Pigeons’

“My father dreams of pigeons,
their souls, their thin cradles
of bone,but it is their luck

he admires most. A boy in Poznari
in a dawn all orange and pinks,
his hands opened like saint’s “

Professor Guzlowski’s poetry doesn’t offer political or religious explanations let alone solutions to the horrors that his parents and those like them experienced. Just wanting his parents lives recounted in poetry seems to be enough. And he does this so well.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Remember Babi Yar -'Art Destroys Silence'

'Babi Yar' -Yevgeny Yevtushenko (born 1933)

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence. 

'Testimony-The Memoirs of Dimitri  Shostakovich,' ( edited by Solomon Volkov) ,1979.

                        Painting of Babi Yar by Shalom Goldberg, Spertus Museum, Chicago, Illinois

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Babi Yar,  a ravine by Kiev, was the site of  a particular horrendous massacre of  some 33,000 Jews on 29th September -30th September 1941 at the hand of the Nazi killing unit, Einzsatsgruppen: The Babi Yar Memorial Centre maintains that 120,000 people were shot by the Germans and their allies. Those who died included " Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, mental patients, civilians of Roma, Russian and Ukrainian origin."

The atrocity was immortalised by Shostakovich's 13th symphony in B flat minor, opus 113, completed in 1962, which opened with a musical setting of the poem 'Babi Yar' by Yevgeny Yevtushenko . This poem was first published in Soviet journal ' Literaturania Gazeta' in 1961.

The Soviet Union had seen a wave of anti-Jewish feeling instigated by Stalin in 1952- 1953. Yevtushenko's poem presented the massacre of 29th September -30th September 1941 as the culmination of antisemitism generally, and referenced anti- Jewish feeling amongst Russian people. The poem opens with a protest that
 " No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone."

Although more cultural expression was permitted under Kruschev , the first performances of the 13th sympathy were placed under immense scrutiny  by the Soviet authorities. Two performances, on 1st December and 3rd December 1962 went ahead at the Moscow conservatory. Yevtushenko soon had to rewrite parts of the poem ( that were being performed as part of the symphony ) as it was felt that not enough emphasis was placed on the non-Jewish people who were killed at Babi Yar. One revised verse read

"I think of Russia's heroic deed
In blocking the way to fascism,
To the smallest dewdrop, she is close to me
In her very being and her fate."

( Source 'The New Shostakovich', Ian MacDonald. 2006 edition)

The combination of the poem and the symphony , particularly as Shostakovich was well known outside the Soviet Union, helped to highlight Babi-Yar. The massacre was also a setting for a scene in the famous 1978 US television series 'Holocaust' . Memorials to the victims have now been placed in different parts of Europe and North America.

The treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union was to remain a major human rights concern during the Cold War, and beyond. Yet the collaboration between Shostakovich and Yevtushenko over 'Babi Yar' has made quite an impact :

"No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“They come!”
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian"
Benjamin Opoknik translation

Babi Yar holocaust memorial centre

Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading Babi Yar in English

Shostakovich 13th Symphony

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

John Bayliss (1919- 2008)

                     A Forgotten Poet of World War 2                                      

                                               John Piper- 'All Saints Chapel Bath' 1942
                                                     Thank you to copyright holder 'Tate Images' for its use

              I first came across the work of John Bayliss from looking at Andrew Sinclair 'The War of the Wasp- The Lost Decade of the Forties'  (1989). The book's title came from a John Bayliss poem 'Epilogue : Testament and Prophecy' .

                 "And  I say to you who have seen
                 war like a wasp under a warm apple
                 rise and sting the unwary
                 that its breed shall multiply
                 and fill the air with wings, and dapple
                 disaster on the bright sky,
                and worse things shall be than have been.

                  But there shall yet be  better "

RAF serving John Bayliss is probably most known for his poem Reported Missing.

             Born in October 1919, educated at St. Catherine College Cambridge. John Bayliss' poetry was already widely published in magazines such as (Modern Reading, The Providence Journal, Poetry London, Lyra ) by 1943- the year that 'Indications', a joint poetry collection featuring John Bayliss, James Kirkup and John Ormond Thomas was published by Grey Walls Press. Bayliss was also an accomplished literary editor before joining up in 1943.

John Bayliss also co-edited an anthology with Alex Comfort ( poet, writer, and pacifist) titled 'New Road' .
A review can be found in The Spectator Archives  Whilst in 1944, John Bayliss' poetry collection 'The White Knight and other Poems' was published Fortune Press.

A particular favourite of mine is 'Sonnet' , just sums perfectly the vulnerability of a town or city from bombing as in to 'bear the flame' . Time or the weathering of the climate can not diminish them, but an enemy out to avenge a bombing raid can.


          .....And all the lovely towns that lie in darkness,
               carved by their statuary of spire and wall,
              betrayed by tower or winding terraces,
              white road and whiter waterfall;
              what must there fear, who did not fear the spoil
              and spell of Time, whom winter did not tame
             with blade of frost,-shall these now bear the flame
              because an alien town has suffered first?

             So was it ever with the beauty made
             to stir and breathe by man. His creatures fade
             even in their imagining.
            And now the darkness breaks into a thing
            of fire, and bell in burning tower
             sounds birth and death with one far ringing."

From 'I Burn for England- and anthology of the poetry of World War II' Selected and Introduced by Charles Hamblett. ( 1966). Finally, from the same anthology, the only war poem that I can think of that mentions Tarot cards,- John Bayliss' -An Old Photograph'

             "See what rewards the Tarot send;-
              these children playing in the sand
              have met their deaths by water of
             under the moon in the dark air
             on deserts where steel dragons stood
             triumphant in the angel's stead.

             For this one found his castles were
             no counter to the waves of war,
             and fever took this one and made
             the salt sea water drive him mad,
             and this one died a falling dream
             beside a friendly aerodrome;

            One photograph, three graveless men,
             the Tarot pack, All Hallows moon. "
       Possibly inspired by T.S.Elliot's 'The Wasteland' and its several  references to the Tarot.

            Future projects 

Hopefully in 2017, I will be able to include poems that weren't originally written in English, and next month should feature Dutch poetry about the 'Mistaken'  Raid on Nijmegen of 22nd February 1944. Also hope to write up to some of my research in to the poetry of Johannes Bobrowski (1917- 1965), German poet who spent several years as a Prisoner of War in Russia during World War 2.


           Alan Ross 

 I have covered the work of Alan Ross in the companion blog to this one
 Pleased to announce that the War Poets Association have published an extract of a long piece I have written about the 'War at Sea Poetry' of Alan Ross ,and can be found here
Alan Ross biography
I mistakenly  titled Vernon Scannell's 1976 book on World War 2 poets 'Not Without Honour' when should have been 'Not Without Glory'.


Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sassoon re-appraised by World War 2 Serving Poets

                                                    A study in influence 

                                               Painting of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

'Silent Service'-Siegfried Sassoon

Now, mulltifold, let Britain's patient power
Be proven within us for the world to see,
None are exempt from service in this hour:
And vanquished in ourselves we dare not be.
  Now, for a sunlit future, we can show
  The clenched resolved endurance that defies
  Daemons in dark,-and toward that future go
  With earth's defended freedom in our eyes,
  In every separate soul let courage shine-
 A kneeling angel holding faith's front -line

 May 23rd, 1940

                                'Silent Service' seems to be so  lacking in passion compared with Sasoon's earlier work. Especially considering the poet's status. Sassoon was one of the most rated war poets of World War one, and his poetry,  semi-autobiographical prose, and his 1917 declaration against the continuation of World War 1 must rank him high in those who have contributed to the popular 'Disenchantment' view of World War one :  The view that either Britain should have remained neutral or the cost of the victory was simply far too high in terms of casualties, which remains widely held today.

Yet Sassoon as a writer  was simply ill prepared for World War 2 . His prose writing at the time was charming and nostalgic such as 'The Old Century and Seven More Years' (1938). Sassoon wrote few poems about World War 2 that were ever published, whilst the ones that emerged are largely ignored.  This was not the case of all World War 1 poets. The World War 2 poetry of both Herbert Read, H.D., Constance Renshaw, and Vera Brittain are still anthologised in collections relating to either World War. Robert Graves established  quite a creative rapport with Alun Lewis, Edmund Blunden with Keith Douglas, so it was also  possible for a World War 1 poet to connect with younger serving poets.

There are reasons why Sassoon was out of sync at the start of World War 2. He was living the life of a country gentleman in Wiltshire being faced with the prospect of having to take in evacuees. His marriage was failing, he had started to back away from his public  endorsement of the Peace Pledge Union and simply let his membership dues lapse when World War 2 broke out.

Yet Sassoon's long term reputation was to survive : I was  lucky enough to hear a programme originally broadcast for Sassoon's 80th birthday ( 8th September 1966)  by BBC radio 'Home Service from the West'  in 1966, via the British Library Sound Archives. Presented by World War 2 serving poet Vernon Scannell, who praised Sassoon

It was the war poets and particularly Sassoon who gave us the key to the world our fathers had known. 

Vernon Scannell 's father , James Bain, served during World War one ; I've not managed to find the exact details of his service. Scannell's childhood and youth were blighted by his father's violence .

Fellow poet Charles Causley contributed to said programme.

 But in the work of Sassoon, I suddenly say that by using common speech in some magical way, he turned into the memorable and the most moving accounts of what really happened to people in war. He enabled us, somehow or other, to take part in the Second World War without the terrible possibility of disillusionment which crippled so many millions of people in the First World War. I think he made it clear more than historian certainly more than any journalist and most certainly more than any politician. It was the poet who said quite clearly what the score was. 

Causley's father served in the 2nd Wessex Division of the Royal Army Driver Service corp, contracted T.B. as a consequence of  phosphorous gas, and invalided out of the Forces in 1919. He never recovered his health and died on 31st March 1924, when Charles Causley was five years old.

Vernon Scannell and Sassoon met only once, but Charles Causley visited Sassoon a number of times at his home  in the 1950's and 1960's.

                     Furthermore, a collection of Sassoon's recent poetry with the title 'Octave' was published to coincide with Sassoon's 80th birthday. This was funded via an appeal backed by a whole range of poets including : John Masefield, Edmund Blunden, C.Day Lewis,  Roy Fuller, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, R.S.Thomas. Charles Causely wrote the introduction with more praise to Sassoon.

Above all living writers, his were the poems that first leapt at me from the page. After I had left school, and the advancing shadow of the Second World War steadily darkened the nineteen-thirties, Sassoon's were the poems that I learnt by heart ....

Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, served with RAF intelligence in World War 2 and stated in ;

Siegfried Sassoon is the one poet emerging from the First World War to become the prophet of the Second..

 One less enthusiastic voice was that of Royal Navy serving poet Alan Ross (1922-2007), writing in his autobiography , 'Blindfold Games' about the poetry that he was reading in the late 1930's

Sassoon and Blunden, as once Rupert Brooke, fulfilled one kind of need, but their later poetry seemed archaic and dull compared to Auden. 

Yes perhaps Ross was being too harsh. Andrew Marr in his 'We British -The Poetry of a People' highlighted the impact of World War 1 poetry.

In short, 1915 dragged English poetry from 1852 to about 1950 in one angry, impatient lurch. The war changed almost everything about Britain, and that included its relationship to poetry.

Alan Ross was possibly the greatest  'War at Sea' poet. He hated the sea, which is not surprising after serving on Arctic Convoy JW51B at the end of 1942. Ross had the ability to evoke the horror and claustrophobia of sea warfare set in a hostile and bleak natural environment. Yes also the talent to record the conversation of sailors of all ranks. Vernon Scannell highlighted this fact in his work on World War 2 poetry 'Not Without Honour' by noticing the influence of Sassoon and Owen in Ross' poem 'Survivors'.

But soon they joke, easy and warm,
As men will who have died once
Yet somehow were able to find their way-
Muttering this was not included in their pay.

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning
With cracked images, they won't forget
The confusion and the oily dead,
Not yet the casual knack of living. 

And this is the key to Sassoon's legacy to World War 2 poetry. He may not have managed to write striking World War 2 poetry, but this genre could not escape his influence.

Sources :
'Programme to mark Siegfried Sassoon's 80th Birthday ' BBC Home Service broadcast 9th September 1966.'  British Library Sound Server Jukebox  T8557,
'Not Without Glory-Poets of the Second World War'  Vernon Scannell ,Woburn Press, 1976
' Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and Other Poets & Poetry, selected by Gwen Watkins and Jeff Towns'
Parthian, 2013,
'We British-The Poetry of a People', Andrew Marr, Fourth Estate, 2015.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Scottish World War 2 Poets- part one

                              The Scottish World War 2 Poets and the Desert

"There are many dead in the brutish desert
     who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilious . The sand is blowing about still.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of the dust." 

From the First Elegy of 'Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica'
Hamish Henderson.

                                                      Thanks to Boing Boing net : Image of WW2 plane found in desert

World War 2 followed the Scottish Renaissance of 1920s and 1930's, a new Scottish cultural  awareness in poetry and fiction writing, particularly emphasising national identity, folklore and language. In such a background the Scottish National Party was founded in 1934.

The North African 'Desert War'  involved a fair number of poets, many were Scottish, including ; Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson, Malcolm MacCleod, G S Fraser, George Campbell Hay. Some of these poems were originally written in Gaelic or Doric. Vernon Scannell was from Buckinghamshire but served with the 51st Highland Division, as did fellow poet John Jarmain from Shrewsbury.  Other poets who fought here included Spike Milligan and Keith Douglas.

In fact with was the North African campaign that gave rise to the most significant attempt to collect World War 2 poetry, the Cairo based 'Oasis Trust' that published its first anthology by service personnel in 1943 . This organisation was revived as the Oasis Salamander Trust which ran from 1976- 2012, and a whole series of anthologies resulted. Yet  war memoir has not defined later views of  the Desert War:  Keith Douglas 'Alamein to Zazem'  first appeared in 1946, two years after the poet's death in 1944. Vernon Scannell's 'Argument of Kings' ( 1987) and Spike Milligan's comic 'Rommel?'Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert' (1976) also deservea mention. But no work steps up like 'The Cruel Sea ' does , a book that became a film, and contributed so much to how the Atlantic convoys are portrayed.

               There was an  understandable reluctance to glorify nature, reminding one of World War 2 Royal Navy serving writers such as Alan Ross and Nicholas Monsarrat  admitting that they hated the sea. War was not shown as somehow fracturing an otherwise rural idyll. The desert climate saw extremes of heat during the day and cold during the night. Sandstorms were a hazard, flies a major plague.

There was a lack of triumphalism evident in the Desert poetry. Hamish Henderson recalled a captured German soldier saying to him "Africa changes everything :In reality we are allies, and the desert is our common enemy."

               Sorley Maclean's 'Death Valley' , just as Keith Douglas in this poem 'Vergissmenicht' - was moved to write about a dead German soldier

Sitting dead in 'Death Valley'
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

And in the last three verses stresses a shared affinity; the soldiers on both sides are sent to fight by those in power:

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and made delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence of malignity
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Whilst John MacInes, writing about the Allied victory of El-Alamein in his poem of the same name,

That victory was not with price-
We paid for it with our hearts' blood;
We are leaving thousands prostrate
In graves in the dust of Alamein. 

Of course the contrast of the desert and home memories were marked in poetry; To return to Hamish Henderson, from the 'Second Elegy of  Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica',  there's a great passage showing a soldier portraying the harshness of nature shrinking into a stage set, as a way of somehow managing the ferocity of desert warfare. But such a respite can only last for an instant.

                       The dreamers remember
a departure like a migration. They recall a landscape
associated with warmth and veils and a pantomime
but never focused exactly. The flopping curtain
reveals scene-shifters running with a freshly painted
incongruous sets. Here childhood's prairie garden
looms like a pampas, where grown-ups stalk (gross outlaws)
on legs of tree trunk; recedes; and the strepitant jungle
dwindles to scruff or shrubs on a docile common,
all but real for a moment, then gone.

Many Thanks  for all their help
Richie McCaffrey
The Scottish Poetry Library

Further reading ' From the Line-Scottish War Poetry' edited David Goldie & Roderick Watson
                            (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2014) ..Quotes from poems were taken                                 from this work.
                            'Return to Oasis-War Poems &Recollections From the Middle East 1940-1946'
                             (The Salamander Oasis Trust, 1946)
                             'Scottish Poets in the Desert' Angus Calder, (article from 'Southfields 1999'