Monday, November 16, 2015

`Like Applauding a Conjuring Trick'

Siegfried Sassoon was shot in the shoulder from behind by a German sniper on April 16, 1917, at Fontaine-les-Croisilles on the Hindenburg Line, during the Battle of Arras. One week earlier, Edward Thomas had been killed during the same engagement. Sassoon wrote a rather heavy-handed poem, “The General,” about the battle and his well-known letter of protest, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.”He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh and treated for shell shock. These events are well-known and in some quarters, had taken on a mythological significance. 

Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Lyons Press, 2004), edited by Max Arthur, collects transcripts of taped interviews with men who participated in the Great War. Most are obscure, not otherwise remembered by historians. The interviews are held by the Sound Archive of the Imperial War Museum. In his introduction, Sir Martin Gilbert says the book is “the First World War in the raw: its drama and cruelties, its moments of humour – some of it very black indeed – its drudgery, and its excitement.” For a blackly humorous anecdote about snipers, with an outcome radically different from Sassoon’s, here are the words of Corp. William Skipp, otherwise unidentified:

“We had a sniper’s post, which was just a sheet of metal two inches high and a foot wide—just a hole big enough to put an end of a rifle through. Well, we had two boys who were orphans, they’d been brought up together, joined up together and been all the way through together. They were standing in the trenches and one said, `What’s this, George, have a look through here,’ and he no sooner approached it than down he went with a bullet through his forehead. Now his friend was so flabbergasted he too had a look, and less than two minutes later he was down the trench with his friend.”
Corp. Clifford Lane, 1st Battalion, Hertfordshire Regiment, suggests the sort of desperation and demoralization found about some of the troops: “The luckiest person in the war was the man who went out and the first day got a nice flesh wound that brought him home again. I’ve known men to be wounded three or four times soon after they’d got to France. They’d go in the front line, be wounded, come home, go out again, be wounded again within a few days – the finest thing that could happen to you.”
Not all of the interviewed vets were obscure. Among those contributing their voices was the poet, war memoirist and scholar Private Edmund Blunden, 11th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment:
“One or two signalers and I had to walk in the open straight in front of the Germans, who were perhaps two or three miles off. But they could see us all right and they did some beautiful shooting, they made rinds round us. One of the lads, a tall handsome youth, said, `I never did see such shelling!’ It was exactly like applauding a conjuring trick, or something in the halls, or a piece of fast bowling in a test match. It struck me even then, what self-control. But he was really looking at a remarkable feat of skill on the part of some other human being, and I thought a lot of that.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

The female English historian and novelist, Pat Barker wrote the Regeneration Trilogy a few years ago which tells the story of the psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart. Sassoon and Owen are patients of his in the novels which are based on reality.