This is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Between August 4 1914 and the Armistice on November 11 1918, uncountable millions died. Many, but not all, were young men, fighting for a cause we can now scarcely comprehend. Here is the newspaper report of the death of just one of them. It was published in the Ross-Shire Journal in December 1916.
2nd Lieutenant R. Douglas French, London Regiment, who was killed in action on September 15th whilst bravely leading his men, was the eldest son of Dr and Mrs French of Moss Bank, North Finchley, and a grandson of Mr Hay Mackenzie Macleay, Riverbank House, Conon Bridge. Eighteen years of age, he was educated at Epsom College, and a first year student at the London Hospital where he did much good work. He was in the O.T.C. London University, and in October 1915 got his commission in the London Regiment and went out to France in May 1916, spending most of his time in the trenches. He had a very strong sense of duty, and was always cheerful and bright. Writing to his true pal and old school fellow, Lieut Oates, he said: “This is my last letter before the great day, it is an experience of a lifetime, and one feels it is nice to be British, and be free. Those who have fallen and gone from this earth fighting for the old country are still in England. If you go out and see what a fine country we have and compare it with poor wounded France. And if they had not died we should not have it.”
His Colonel writes: “I can assure you of my great regret, for your son was a promising young soldier, and the battalion could ill spare him, and he fell in a most gallant assault in the German line.” The O.C. of his company wrote: “It is with the deepest regret I have to inform you of the death of your son in the great advance of the 15th inst. He died bravely leading his men, by whom he was much admired, which was shown by the fact that two men went through grave risks and even lost their lives in trying to save him. He was indeed a brave fellow, and we shall all miss him. Please accept my sincerest sympathy, and trust that the knowledge that he died like a man for his country may in some short measure lessen your great sorrow. His men write of him: “He was a true English gentleman, a great lover of England and duty, always thinking of others happiness, and to be anywhere near him was to know real happiness. A baby in years, but a man in heart and purpose, and he died a ‘real little hero’.”
Lieut. French was a keen sportsman, a lover of music, he played and sang well; and his love of home and his parents was very great. Everyone, old and young, rich and poor, loved Douglas, and he will be sadly missed.
The Rev the headmaster of Epsom College writes of him: “You know how I honoured your dear son. If a headmaster could have favourites Douglas would be among the first. If only I had such a boy myself. Shall I bid you hope. It is not needed, and if it is too late to hope in that way, what death could a boy die to match the glory and pride of such an hour. We have always been proud of him and his memory lives here, and will live. He cannot have any real regret unless you sorrow more than he could wish.”
Through the good work of the Red Cross Dr French has been able to interview some of the men who were present on the day of the battle, and who are now wounded, and in hospital, and they told him that Lieut. French was wounded, but as he was the only officer of the Company left to carry on, he had his wounds dressed, and said: “Boys, you all have mothers we must think of the women and children of England and go on and win. So come on, boys, let’s turn them out.” Whilst the objective was being taken Lieut. French was shot dead by machine gun fire.
Dr and Mrs French have had no official notice from the War Office, only that he is missing. It is through the British Red Cross, 18 Carlton House Terrace, SW, that they were able to get information, and for the benefit of others they would like it known the wonderful work that is being done by the British Red Cross and Order of St John. If anyone wishes to pay tribute to this little hero son, what he would wish would be for them to help the Red Cross with funds for their most noble work.
Where do we start? How can we begin to compass any of that: the world that made eighteen-year–olds of such astonishing and touching earnestness and grace; the headmaster who had to endure writing – how many? – such letters; the parents who had to scrabble and push to find out what had become of their lovely child.
David Haig’s heart-breaking play, My Boy Jack, is perhaps the nearest we can come, one hundred years later, to being let into every aching moment of such loss. Haig dramatised Rudyard Kipling’s poem, which was written in 1915, shortly after his only son had been posted ‘missing’ at the Battle of Loos. Jack Kipling was eighteen. You may have seen the film of the play made for television, in which Haig plays Kipling and Daniel Radcliffe is Jack. If you haven’t, this weekend might be the time to do so.
But the War was a time for poets. Not only the young men who might have gone on to have made poetry their career, but men finding some moment of solace or clarity as they wrote a few lines of poetry and kept it in the breast-pocket of their uniforms or sent it home to mothers, sisters, lovers. Women were writing poems as well, whether at home or in the field-station hospitals, factories and offices to which the war had propelled them. Does this response, to turn to verse, seem so strange to us now? Has poetry become passive, too gentle, too unmanly? I think there are (at least) two answers to this. First, have a look at contemporary music for raw political response to lived experience in the streets: folk music, rap music, the poets are there alright. Second, the enormous number of grammar and public-school educated young men swept into the armed forces and into battle had been brought up on a regime of translating Greek and Roman poetry into English and back again into their ancient tongues. The Classical poetry that they learned told of war and the glories of the battle field. No surprise, then, that the young officers in 1914 and 1915 were writing of chariots and spears. Here, for example, is Rupert Brooke:
Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.
Brooke had everything going for him in 1914. Astonishingly clever, he was also charming, thoughtful and (never discount it) good-looking. His subtle and scholarly work at Cambridge strongly suggests that, had he lived, his poetry would have been re-shaped by the Somme, as it was for others. Brooke died of sepsis on his way to Gallipoli. Had he survived the war, he might well have proved the greatest of the sharp and bitter post-war Modernist poets, out-Elioting Eliot.
If poetry had been seen as the proper voice of patriotism and a way to emphasise the littleness of the individual in the great scale of things, the unimaginable reality of the trenches blasted the conventions to smithereens. We can even put our finger on the poem that marks the moment. Here is Siegfried Sassoon’s shattered sonnet, ‘Attack’.
AT dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
Those of you given to such things will have noticed that Sassoon stops after only thirteen lines. Even the most ordered and serene of forms, the sonnet, is unable to survive the onslaught of modern warfare.
The First World War gave us a legacy of great poetry. To those who were killed, or whose lives were broken by it, none of it makes the slightest difference. Worse: we read the War Poets, we shed a tear or two, and we go out and slide into all the same messes, over and over and over again.