Saturday, 10 September 2011

The roll call of suffering and waste

George Coppard, machine gunner at the Battle of the Somme, described it as a "dreadful scene" where "hundreds of dead were strung out , like wreckage washed up." Perhaps the sheer scale of this carnage accounts for the fact that it has led to literature which effectively conveys the horror and grief we feel when human life is  quite simply squandered. This extract is from Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, written in the 1990s.

Price was reading the roll call. Before him were standing the men who had managed to return. their faces were shifty and grey in the dark.To begin with he asked the whereabouts of each missing man. After a time he saw that it would take too long.
Price began to speed the process. He hurried from one unanswered name to the next. Bryne, Hunt, Hones, Tipper, Wood , Leslie, Barnes, Studd, Richardson, Savile, Thompson, Hodgson, Birkenshaw, Llewellyn, Francis, Arkwright, Duncan, Shea, Simons, Anderson, Blum, Fairbrother. Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn and where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers' shattered flesh that lay in stinking shell holes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference,
Of 800 men in the battalion who had gone over the parapet, 155 answered their names. Price told his company to dismiss, though he said it without the bark of the parade ground; he said it kindly...Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw waited for them and asked them how they had done, The men walked on as in a dream, and did not answer. Some of them spat or pushed back their helmets, most of them looked down, their faces expressionless yet grained with sadness. They went to their tents and lay down.

1 comment:

  1. Suem

    Thanks for this.

    Dulce Et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen
    Regeneration Trilogy – Pat Barker
    Waiting for the Telegram – Alan Bennett

    Are just a few of literary works that tell you the horrors of the First World War – but also that the memory and effects live on; for the soldiers, their families and wider society. on my own blog demonstrates how not just my grandfather suffered from his injuries in the trenches, but his whole family.

    Yet if it wasn’t for those horrors and the questioning of the class system, social inequality (e.g. why British Tommys were an average of four inches shorter and in poorer health than officers or German solders), religious compliance with temporal authority etc. it is doubtful we would live today in a society that much better fulfils the social morality found in the Bible. I know conservative Christians often confuse morality with what people do with their wing-wangs and lady-gardens (water finds its own level as they say...); but a great portion of the Torah and New Testament thinking on morality is concerned with how rulers rule, workers are paid and treated, justice is free from the self-interest of the rich and powerful, foreigners do not suffer prejudice etc.

    The wickedness of the Great War did much to better the lot of working classes – who had for so long been kept in thraldom for the benefit of the rich (the Anglican Church in particular often helping in maintaining this oppressive class system – it is noteworthy many social reformers were non-conformists (excepting Wilberforce, of course)). So, yes, WW1 was horrific, but without it (and WW2) I doubt very much we would have the fairer and more equal society we do at present. You can moan about the riots, secularism, ‘immorality’ etc., but like it or not, we live in a damn sight fairer, moral and safe society than we did a 100 years ago.