Gary Raymond reviews War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme, a documentary from BBC Four which explores the literary impact of the brutal Great War.
No human conflict has produced such literary treasures, grim as they may be, as the First World War. The ‘war to end all wars’ came, from a literary point of view, at a time when Europe would have some its finest writers, and have them on the verge of re-evaluating the role of literature, the form of literature, in a world of rapid change. This rapid change was given a gruesome punctuation mark by the First World War, and by the Battle of the Somme in particular. The Somme has become a symbol of so many things; of the futility of war, the carnage, the foolishness, the tragedy. It still hangs now, and even though some truly great work was written in response to it by so many artists who found themselves in that ‘muddy hell’, to a certain extent it still transcends the words given to it. The Somme changed the way the British people viewed the war, and as the BBC documentary argues, this is because of the writers who were in it.
The documentary also claims, more poets fought in the Somme than in any other battle in history, and even if the foggy nature of history makes such claims a little bold, it is still a valuable one. What the armies at the Somme had in their rank and file was a number of significant literary minds, and ones able to record as best they could the experiences of a conflict the likes of which no man had ever encountered, and they could do it from the point of view of all positions, from private to officer. This gives a democracy to the reliving a truly unprecedented scale. The poets in these trenches were not just educated men, although there are scholars amongst them, but they are the sons of Welsh colliers and East End tradesman.
War of Words: Soldier Poets of the Somme is a thoughtful documentary. Robert Graves, David Jones, Bernard Adams, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edmund Blunden, Frank Richards, Ernst Jünger, W.N. Hodgson, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg are all given their due, placed as marks on the now fresh and often lush modern scenery of the Somme battlefields. Historian Peter Barton walks the viewer through the dips and mounds that were once the trenches at Bois Francais and Mametz Wood. These men were ‘soldiers first and poets second’ but this battle was soon to be something that would challenge even that definition of ‘man’. What the poets did, most of them unconnected to one another, was to not just try and cast in ink the unimaginable horrors that they saw, but they in turn tried to salvage something utterly human from the dehumanizing dystopic landscape that was being churned before them.
The documentary takes a lot on, and does a good job with it. Not just an evaluation of the work, but an insight into the lives of the writers, their pshycology and background skipped through with some very adept editing and succinct scripting. There is a great deal of ground to cover, and lesser filmmakers (of which the BBC commission a great many) would have smudged a lot of it with grandstanding and injections of flash-bang ‘dramatics’. But this is a sensitive and somewhat intellectual essay.
A word or two, then, for the maturity of the documentary-makers, who seem thankfully out of fashion with the current television documentary trend. Michael Sheen narrates, but this is an excellent narrator at work, not a celebrity-fronted high school history lesson. The experts – historical, literary, and literary historical – are given the space and respect they need to explain the context. The sombre animated scenes giving atmosphere and visuals to some of the recited poetry is a very good decision, and gives so much more than actors in uniform might have done.
The punchline is a good one, too: a strident argument rather than a feeble suggestion, that the Somme has its place in the national psyche because of the words we have, committed by these writers, some at the time and some many many years later, stretching from reactive poetry of Rosenberg and Sassoon to the high fantasy of Tolkien. Other great battles of the war have largely drifted into the terrible fabric of the Great War as backdrop. This might have been explored further. Some of the writers profiled in the programme fought for longer than the Somme. Isaac Rosenberg and David Jones, for instance, were both at Passchaendale, that other symbol of the grimness and futility of trench warfare, but neither wrote a single word on it. What was it about the Somme that brought so much, when other encounters, which the history books, if not the poets, suggest were just as traumatic, seem to have not inspired such work. Graves’ Goodbye to All That, probably the best memoir of the war from the English side, brings a searing personal intensity. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, however, is a staggering overview of the Somme as the End Times. Jünger sees the world as compressing into this ploughed featureless landscape of metal and corpses. Where once nations did battle, now there was just a resonance of unimaginable energy. To Jünger ‘the individual’ was over. This is surely a gauntlet thrown to the modernists who by 1922 would be refuting this with genius.
Although the concentration of poets at the Somme may very well be a reason for the place it has in our minds, that figure is there too. The 19,240 British lives lost on that first day is a number too substantial to truly absorb. The five digits are a symbol, a hieroglyph, more so than the attempts of these writers to transcribe their visions. And so the bigger question is not why is the Somme remembered the way it is, and why do we hold the poets of that battle in the esteem we do, but why does the First World War have a literary cannon that far outreaches any other conflict? Beyond the Somme is Owen, Edward Thomas, Gurney, Chesterton, Brooke, Vera Brittain, Ford Maddox Ford, Coulson, Grenfell, Vernède, Wilfred Gibson, Remarque, Shanks, Appollinaire, Péguy, Flex, and none of them were at the Somme. War has always inspired writing – of course it has – but the significance of this war to these poets is a phenomena beyond the collectivised and eternal astonishment of the cruelty humankind can inflict upon its own. The answer, surely, is modernism. These men were writing about the end of the old world, not just a battle and not just a war. In our commemorations of the Somme we commemorate a symbol when we spend so little time on the reality of all the other conflicts of that war. The irony perhaps is that of all the great work that came out of the Somme, it was the influence on Tolkien that is most profound and most lasting. As the documentary mentions, Tolkien never believed this was going to be the ‘war to end all wars’, and his reaction in The Lord of the Rings, which filters so much of his spiritual and physical experiences of his time in the war, is to establish an eternal conflict between good and evil. For television, perhaps, such a concept is too broad to really do justice. It is a subject only for literature.