Background to the poem: ‘Home Leave’

Home Leave was that most peculiar of things – always longed for yet, once obtained, often something to be endured and ended as quickly as possible.  The shock of seeing London to varying degrees still lit up and enjoying itself (at least until the Zeppelin and Gotha raids began in earnest in 1916) often triggered a sense of dislocation, incredulity and even anger as troops on leave passed through the capital en route to their homes.  Adding to this, the sheer normalness of being home contrasted so bizarrely with what those on leave had just come from that many appeared to find it difficult to adjust in the few days available.  There are stories of officers insisting on sleeping out in the garden under groundsheets, men inventing spurious reasons to return early, and, in memoirs, a frequently-expressed reluctance to talk with anyone about anything they had just seen or experienced.  Jingoistic comments about ‘our brave boys beating the Boche’ appear to have particularly grated, and there is often an underlying sense of ‘wondering how your pals were doing’, and a desire to return to them as quickly as possible because they were the only ones who truly understood how you felt.

For those left at home, ‘Leave’ was a blessed relief from worry and was usually (though not always) a brief moment of joy, but for the individual on leave it was often a painful experience because there was rarely a chance to unburden themselves.  Sometimes quite the reverse, because there was inevitably pressure to play up to the image of the ‘brave conquering hero’ – probably the last thing that anyone fresh from the muddy murderous hell of Passchendaele felt like doing.

Background to the poem: ‘The Skull’

Although life in WW1 trenches is now invariably linked with the word ‘mud’, in fact the River Somme runs through a chalk landscape for much of the setting for the eponymous battle.  True, the riparian margins of the River Somme were peatland, making the going challenging in these parts, but during early parts of the Battle of the Somme the weather was dry and the chalk was hard.  A better picture of the conditions associated with early stages of the battle is given by William Orpen’s paintings of the same area in 1917, where white bones of the dead blend with the white bones of the chalk landscape.  Indeed Orpen’s “Thiepval 1917” may have been the subconscious trigger for this poem.

Only when the rains came in late July and August and barely seemed to stop did the battlefield begin to descend into a muddy hell.  Anyone who has walked across a chalk field in the rain will know how cloying and sheer glue-like the chalk and clay-with-flints (usually found together) of such a landscape can become.  During the warm days of July, however, the Somme Battlefield was often bone dry and splattered with the startling while lesions of shell holes and trench lines, as though the very bones of the Earth were being exposed.

‘Poems of love, blood and death’ – background to the World War 1 poems

For anyone interested in first-hand experiences of World War 1 and the material which has inspired my poetry about this period, there has been a recent flush of such accounts, many published decades ago but now made more easily accessible through the medium of e-books and the likes of Kindle and Amazon.  The classics are volumes such as ‘Goodbye To All That‘ by Robert Graves, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer‘ by Siegfried Sassoon and ‘Undertones of War‘ by Edmund Blunden, while Lyn Macdonald has compiled a huge number of first-hand descriptions for her much acclaimed accounts of the Somme and Passchendaele.

Perhaps less well known is ‘The War the Infantry Knew – 1914-1918‘ which gives a day-by-day account of the activities and experiences of the Royal Welch Fusiliers spanning the entire war, painstakingly assembled by Captain J.C. Dunn, the RWF Medical Officer for much of this period, from accounts given to him by colleagues and from his own diaries.  Both Sassoon and Graves feature briefly in the accounts but although Dunn and his contributors rarely stray from the principle of restrained understatement, the conditions and experiences they endured, month after relentless month, come through all too clearly.  John Lewis-Stempel has meanwhile pulled together a particularly moving account of the youngest, most junior officers, who shared the experiences of the men most directly, felt responsible for their men and led them into battle from the front.  As a consequence they had the shortest life-expectancy of any in the trenches, as Lewis-Stempel’s title suggests: ‘Six Weeks – The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War‘.

Another feature of the recent crop of accounts now emerging – or re-emerging – is the number of autobiographies or biographies giving the perspective of the common private soldier or the NCO.  The majority of the best-known autobiographies were written by junior officers, subalterns mainly, and have an air of ‘public school duty’ about them, whereas accounts written by the rank-and-file Tommy often have a different, more dogged, feel to them.  For some, life in the trenches was only marginally worse than the life they had left back in Britain, with the added benefit of the undoubted camaraderie which developed within a platoon, although the steady loss of one’s ‘pals’ and the grinding nature of the work sometimes led to a shutting down of the emotions and an avoidance of new friendships, typified by “With Innocence and Hope” by Mike Williams.

There are, of course, also famous accounts from the other major combatants in this war, most notably ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘ by Erich Maria Remarque for the German perspective, and ‘Le Feu‘ [Under Fire] by Henri Barbusse for France, but for an understanding of just what both French and German troops endured during the battle for Verdun, Ian Ousby’s ‘The Road to Verdun‘ is essential reading.

Furthermore, while the humour of the Wipers Times and the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoons are now somewhat legendary, it should not be assumed that the British had the monopoly on humour within the trenches.  “The Silence of Colonel Bramble” by André Maurois shines a gentle Gallic light on the British approach to war.

What is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is the way that so many men, and women, went back to live a normal life at the end of the war as though they’d just been away somewhere for a few weeks, the only thing betraying the scars they carried inside being the fact that many refused ever to talk about their war experiences with anyone.  Pat Francis never learned anything about the war from her father Jack Watson apart from a nursery rhyme which he wrote in her autograph book and which he then enigmatically dated ‘Abbeville 1916’.   She never learned why, but her subsequent meticulous research into her father’s war record resulted in ‘A Quiet Life – a marine in the Great War‘.  He had been in Gallipoli, through the worst of times in that ill-fated venture, and then Salonika, the Somme and finally Passchendaele – worse even than the worst of times – and yet he never, ever, spoke a word about it…