Sunday, November 8, 2009
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In this 'found poem' for Remembrance Day, Andrew Motion stitches together the words of several generations of shellshocked soldiers from the first world war to the present
Doctors, historians and other experts have documented the effects of shellshock – thanks to them, we know that the term covers a multitude of ailments, and is the result of far more than just shells going off. But, as Ben Shephard wrote in his history of medical psychiatry, the people who have suffered from it have often been too ill to speak. They have been left out of the record. I wanted to hear from them. This is a "found" poem, a stitching together of the voices of shellshocked people. Their words have been taken from a variety of sources, from the first world war to the present, and are presented in the poem in roughly chronological order. There's a fragment of Siegfried Sassoon in there, but most are from unknown soldiers. Together, they give a sense of moving through time to establish what is horribly recurrent about this affliction. It is a poem by them, orchestrated by me.
An Equal Voice
"We hear more from doctors than patients. However hard he tries, the historian cannot even the account, cannot give the patients an equal voice, because most of them chose not to recount their experiences."
from A War of Nerves, by Ben Shephard
War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble.
Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust
reports, blueprints one day and the next –
with the help of a broken-down motor car
and a few gallons of petrol – marching men
with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes,
horses straining and plunging at the guns,
little clay-pits opening beneath each step,
and piles of bloody clothes and leggings
outside the canvas door of a field hospital.
At the end of the week there is no telling
whether you spent Tuesday going over
the specifications for a possible laundry
or skirting the edges of hell in an automobile.
There were some cases of nervous collapse
as the whistle blew on the first day of battle.
In general, however, it is perfectly astonishing
and terrifying how bravely the men fight.
From my position on rising ground I watched
one entire brigade advancing in line after line,
dressed as smartly as if they were on parade,
and not a single man shirked going through
the barrage, or facing the rapid machine-gun
and rifle-fire that finally wiped them all out.
I saw with my own eyes the lines advancing
in such admirable order quickly melt away.
Yet not a man wavered, or broke the ranks,
or made any attempt to turn back again.
A soft siffle, high in the air like a distant lark,
or the note of a penny whistle, faint and falling.
But then, with a spiral, pulsing flutter, it grew
to a hissing whirr, landing with ferocious blasts,
with tremendous thumps and then their echoes,
followed by the whine of fragments which cut
into the trees, driving white scars in their trunks
and filling the air with torn shreds of foliage.
The detonation, the flash, the heat of explosion.
And all the while fear, crawling into my heart.
It literally crawled into me. I had set my teeth
steadying myself, but with no success. I clutched
the earth, pressing against it. There was no one
to help me then. O how one loves mother earth.
One or two friends stood like granite rocks
round which the seas raged, but very many
other men broke in pieces. Everyone called it
shell-shock, meaning concussion, but shell-
shock is rare. What 90% get is justifiable funk
due to the collapse of the helm of our self-control.
You understand what you see but you cannot think.
Your head is in agony and you want relief for that.
The more you struggle, the more madness creeps
over you. The brain cannot think of anything at all.
I don't ask you what you feel like but I tell you,
because I have been like you. I have been ill as you
and got better. I will teach you, you will get better.
Try and keep on trying what I tell you and you will.
The place was full of men whose slumbers were morbid,
titubating shell-shockers with their bizarre paralyses
and stares, their stammers and tremors, their nightmares
and hallucinations, their unstoppable fits and shakings.
Each was back in his doomed shelter, when the panic
and stampede was re-enacted among long-dead faces,
or still caught in the open and under fire. This officer
was quietly feasting with imaginary knives and forks;
that group roamed around clutching Teddy Bears;
one man stripped to his underclothes and proclaimed
himself to be Mahatma Gandhi; another sat cramped
in a corner clutching a champagne cork; one chanted,
with his hands over an imaginary basket of eggs, Lord
have mercy on us, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
I could feel the bullets hit my body. I could feel
myself being hit by gun fire and this is what made me
sit up and scream. What I saw round me were others
walking with the bent and contorted spines of old age,
or moving without their lifting their legs, by vibrating limbs
on the ground. All equally unfortunate, filled with sadness.
Dead friends gazed at them. Rats emerged from the cavities
of bodies. Then came trembling and losing control of legs:
you never dreamt of such gaits. One fellow cannot hold
his head still or even stand except with incessant jerking.
Instantly the man across the aisle follows suit. In this way
the infection spreads in widening circles until the whole
ward is jerking and twitching, all in their hospital blues,
their limbs shaking and flapping like the tails of dogs.
Naturally it can save a good deal of time if men,
before battle, have pictures from the Hate Room hung
in their minds of things the enemy has already done,
waiting to be remembered. Starving people for instance
and sick people, and dead people in ones and in heaps.
If that proves ineffective, then treatment is post facto.
Compulsory mourning is no longer recommended
whereby the hospital confines a man for three days
alone in a darkened room and orders him to grieve
for dead comrades. But other cures must be attempted,
and in some cases men wish to return to do their duty.
See, your eyes are already heavier. Heavier and heavier.
You are going into a deep, deep sleep. A deep, far sleep.
You are far asleep. You are fast sleep. You have no fear.
I am quiet and healthy but cannot bear being away
from England. I have been away too long and seen
too many things. My best friend was killed beside me.
I have a wife and two children and I have done enough.
I thought my nerves were better but they are worse.
The first fight, the fight with my own self, has ended.
I may be ready to fight again but I am not willing.
I am in urgent need of outdoor work and would be glad
to accept a position as a gardener at a nominal salary.
My best friend walked back into my room this morning,
shimmering white and transparent. I saw him clearly.
He stood at the foot of my bed and looked right at me.
I asked him, What do you want? What do you want?
Eventually I woke up and of course I was by myself.
Things you can do from here:
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
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Cambridge University is on the verge of securing Siegfried Sassoon's personal papers for posterity – his unpublished poems and letters are more relevant than ever, says Michael Morpurgo
I once came across a letter written by a military officer to a soldier's mother. "We regret to inform you," it said, "that your son was shot at dawn for cowardice." I later discovered that more than 300 British soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion during the first world war. Two were shot because they had fallen asleep on the job.
As far as I know, Siegfried Sassoon didn't write about these soldiers. But what he did do, as I did when I went to the graves at Ypres, was get angry about the futility of the war. In July 1917, Sassoon – poet, diarist, satirist, officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and winner of the Military Cross – was away from the front due to injury. He wrote a letter to his commanding officer, declining to return to duty because he believed the war was being deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it. "I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation," wrote Sassoon, who was nicknamed Mad Jack by his men, "has now become a war of aggression and conquest."
Sassoon's letter, titled A Soldier's Declaration, was published in newspapers and read out in the Commons; it very nearly got him executed. Now, a handwritten copy of the letter is among the wonderful collection of Sassoon's personal papers – among them the diaries and notebooks he carried with him to the front – that Cambridge University has all but secured for its library. The National Heritage Memorial Fund has today announced a grant of £550,000 towards their acquisition, which leaves just £110,000 to be raised.
This collection is vital to our understanding of war both then and now. The poets of the first world war – Sassoon, and others like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas – evoke the pain and suffering of war in a way that I, when I discovered them aged 14 or 15, found riveting. I was a war baby. Born in 1943, I grew up with the suffering of the second world war all around me. I played in bomb sites, and my mother cried often, mourning the death of the uncle I never knew – Uncle Peter, who was in the RAF and was shot down in 1940, aged 21, and whose photograph was always on the mantelpiece. But it was only when I read Sassoon, and the others, that I realised how extraordinarily brave these soldiers, and these poets, were. They faced down the most difficult thing for any of us to face down: our own mortality.
The thing that sets Sassoon's work apart is that he was so connected to his soldiers. One of the previously unpublished poems in this collection provides an account of that connection, and of the wrongs Sassoon felt were being dished out to his men:
Can I forget the voice of one who cried
For me to save him, save him, as
I will remember you, and from
Shall rise the power and the
poignance of my songs
And this shall comfort me until
That I have been your captain and
It's just a scrap torn from a notebook, but it's hugely powerful. Sassoon is more political, more edgy, than the other war poets. But he wasn't always violently against the war. The poem he wrote on the first page of his earliest wartime notebook is also included in this collection. Called Simpleton, it's about his faith that "God marches with the armies". "He loves to hear men laugh," Sassoon wrote, "and when they fall he triumphs in their wounds."
At that time, Sassoon was in tune with the spirit of the war. It was only when he saw the suffering and the pointlessness of it all that he changed his mind. He had a great sardonic wit, too. There's a wonderful short poem Sassoon wrote called The General – about jolly chaps going off to the front, and the general on his horse sending them to their death. Sassoon knew that the soldiers' deaths were coming at the behest of people who didn't understand the military situation: they simply hurled men at barbed wire and machine guns.
Sassoon had the courage to say what, at the time, you absolutely couldn't say, and to some extent, still can't: that there was no point in just going on fighting and fighting. If you read out Sassoon's A Soldier's Declaration in Commons now, it would create the same furore it did in 1917 – because we're exactly where we were then. We're not in a world war, though some might call it a world crisis. But we are still sending young men and women to die in wars that many people in this country don't agree with: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for supposedly democratic principles – and yet we have a president of Afghanistan who has arrived in the most undemocratic manner. And we have soldiers coming back in coffins.
We're all so adept at turning people into heroes. Sassoon admired the courage of the soldiers, just as many in this country do now; it was the causes he was dubious about. And still, in our wars, with every day, every week, every month that goes by, someone dies. And every time someone dies there's a mother left, a father, a lover, a wife, a child. Sassoon was asking us why men were still dying. His is a voice that really needs to be heard now.