What Soldiers Read in the War Zone; Literature for the Military
Byline: JOHN MULLAN
WE ALL know what war poetry means. Thanks to anthologists and school syllabuses, we think of it as the verse written by soldiers, poetry that is shocked or pitying or protesting. In particular for the British, it is the writing of British soldier-poets of the first world war, most famously Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
But what about the poetry that soldiers might read rather than write?
One of the most popular and lasting anthologies of English poetry is Other Mens Flowers, compiled by Field Marshall Wavell in 1941, in a space between campaigns. It was, as Wavell put it, a war baby, conceived as a relaxation to the mind between battles.
An old idea of poetry as a suitable preparation for battle is represented by a famous story about the 18th-century war hero General Wolfe, who was said to have read Grays Elegy aloud to his officers the night before he led the attack on Quebec. The citadel was captured from the French, but Wolfe was killed. Grays meditative, sonorous poem, with its English setting - the village churchyard - came to seem suitable preparation for a philosophical modern warrior.
Grays Elegy was one of the pieces selected by the organizers of a scheme, launched in 1915, to provide pocket literature for British troops fighting in the first world war. The project was launched by Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, who had been told of young soldiers, home on leave, reminiscing about their favorite passages in English literature. Bruce Richmond, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and Sir Walter Raleigh, Professor of English at Oxford, were recruited to help choose extracts. Each item was printed in the form of a broadsheet - a single page of thin paper suitable for inclusion in a letter and easily folded into a pocket.
Hundreds of thousands were distributed to service personnel. Sets of six were sold with an envelope for a penny, just covering production costs. Welfare Agencies from the YMCA to the Church of England Temperance Association bought up bundles for distribution. A week after first publication, a million broadsheets had been sold. In the 1920s, two anthologies were published by Methuen.
According to Dawson, soon after the publication of the first selections, suggestions for future choices poured into the newspaper.
The choice for the very first broadsheet catches much of what they were about. It is A Choir Practice, an extract from Thomas Hardys novel Two on a Tower. Most of it is talk between the villagers and the vicar, who is attempting to have them pronounce properly the words of Onward Christian Soldiers. It is bucolic yet comical, idealized yet with the credible texture of ordinary speech.
There are straightforwardly patriotic, even rousing choices. The St. Crispins Day speech from Shakespeares Henry V is there, as are Macaulays rolling verses on the defeat of the Armada and Michael Draytons Ballad of Agincourt (Fair stood the wind for France...).
So are recently written and unpitying Poems on the War by Kipling, Julian Grenfell and Laurence Binyon (Stand up and meet the war./The Hun is at the gate! exclaims Kiplings For All We Have and Are).
Yet most patriotic vignettes are indirectly so. There are extracts from Lord Macaulays History of England, from accounts of Sir John Moore in the peninsular war and from Southeys Life of Nelson. There are many more passages about the country than about the nation: a snatch of Cobbetts Rural Rides, William Morris on the upper Thames, lyrics by Wordsworth, Gilbert White on the bird life of Selborne, pastoral songs by Herrick. There is more melancholy than triumph:
Miltons LAllegro, Tennysons The Lotows-Eaters, Shelleys Adonais, Francis Bacons essay On Death.
To the 21st century reader, the most striking aspect of the selection is the amount of comic writing. …