World War I

Short But Sweet: In Flanders Fields

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. (image and caption text from Wikipedia)

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I’ve always been of the mind that there are two types of war poetry: the realistic and the patriotic. In fact, I wrote about that a few years ago when I compared Wilfred Owen to Edgar Guest and used both in my English classes around the same time we were reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Guest’s poetry is the type that shares the same sentiment if you were to log onto Facebook today–I wouldn’t be surprised if someone posted “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” with a graphic of a bald eagle and an American Flag.

At first glance, “In Flanders Fields,” which is unarguably one of the most famous poems of the First World War, seems like it would be that type of poem. It has a pretty simple rhyme scheme and was written by a Canadian soldier, as opposed to something more complex that came from the pen of one of the Great Masters or at least someone from the University of Iowa.

But then you hit that line, “We are the Dead.”

Every time I read that poem, I have to pause after that line. McCrae is obviously not subtle here and obviously doesn’t want to be subtle and normally I don’t usually go for poetry that is so direct. But here, it’s absolutely necessary. The dead are asking us a favor, to finish their work, to carry on what they started so that the task can be ended. Whether or not that’s to vanquish the foe or bring peace is, I guess a matter of interpretation.

I bring this up because, obviously, it’s Veterans Day. But as we honor our Veterans, it’s necessary to explore the human condition that leads to all of the death that comes with war. Yes, it’s sacrifice for a cause, but as we have seen in so many wars and so many works of literature, it can be both noble and ignoble, both worthy and useless. And to perfectly encapsulate that in three stanzas is both poignant and amazing.

Short But Sweet: Recruiting Sergeant

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 1915. Image via Wikipedia.

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

At the moment, my advanced English class is in the middle of our discussion of All Quiet on the Western Front. One of my favorite parts of this unit is going into the historical context of the novel as well as sharing the poetry and songs that are of the era, are about the era, or are from another era but reflect the themes of the book.Yes, students aren’t the biggest fans of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” but it is relevant to WWI and will get stuck in your head for hours on end after listening to it (seriously, I was singing it all day on Friday). With that, I give you “Recruiting Sergeant”:

Recruiting Sergeant

(trad. arr by Great Big Sea and Fergus O’Byrne)

Two recruiting sergeants came to the CLB,
for the sons of the merchants, to join the Blue Puttees
So all the hands enlisted, five hundred young men
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

They crossed the broad Atlantic in the brave Florizel
And on the sands of Suvla, they entered into hell
And on those bloody beaches, the first of them fell
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

So it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Then the call came from London, for the last July drive
To the trenches with the regiment, prepare yourselves to die
The roll call next morning, just a handful survived.
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

And it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

The stone men on Water Street still cry for the day
When the pride of the city went marching away
A thousand men slaughtered, to hear the King say
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

And it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

So it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Now, while the song is attributed to the author known as “traditional,” a little research reveals … well, not much beyond that it evolved from various traditional songs that go very far back (into the 1600s) and this particular version was adapted by the Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea, a band I’ve been a fan of since I first discovered them via MuchMusic and a friend’s CD collection in 1999. It didn’t help, by the way, that my maternal grandmother was from Newfoundland and I have the provincial flag of Newfoundland hanging in my classroom.

Anyway, a few years ago while doing research on the song’s subject matter, I came across a message board post that detailed quite a bit  including how the verses are about how many young men from Newfoundland were basically recruited to be cannon fodder:

The third verse deals with the Battle of Beaumont Hamel during which, at 8:45 am, on July 1, 1916, 800 Newfoundlanders went “over the top” of the trench into no-mans land and were promptly slaughtered. The battle ended within thirty minutes and, when roll call was taken the next morning, only 68 of the original 800 answered.  

This is actually pretty appropriate to where we are in the novel when we listen to the song because it’s right around chapter six, where Paul Baumer and his group are in the trenches and fight across No Man’s Land against the French, suffering heavy casualties to the point where only 32 of what were originally 150 men before the beginning of the novel survive. Plus, there is the tonal shift that happens between the verses and the chorus, which is reflected in the music, which is more somber and serious in those verses than in the chorus, which is a rousing sing-along. Of course, as I point out, the chorus is twinged with irony being that fighting at Flanders and Galipoli did not go well at all for the British military, especially those in territories such as Canada or Australia (I learned about Galipoli from watching Peter Weir’s film starring a young Mel Gibson).

So what you get is an historical illustration, a demonstration of tone and some irony, as well as how Remarque’s theme of the horrors of war and the damage it can do to a generation of young men is universal–in fact, our short class discussion on the song before we turned our attention back to chapters 5-6 of All Quiet on the Western Front  focused on how the same sentiments seem to be heard on both sides of the war, which led to a lot of us scratching our heads to find a justification for the war in itself (it really is hard to figure out a “noble” reason for the First World War because it’s all about political gamesmanship; World War II is a lot easier to justify because of Hitler). Plus, the song and the band are really awesome to begin with.

Short, But Sweet: Anthem for Doomed Youth

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
BY WILFRED OWEN
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

I’ve written before about my affinity for Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and seeing that today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought it appropriate to contemplate another. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” isn’t a poem that I’ve used in class, at least not yet, but I think that in the great struggle we seem to have with the ability to make texts “relevant” for our students, this is another that wins out. Well, depending on where you teach.

The two high schools at which I have taught both have a pretty large military presence. One is right on the I-95 corridor in Northern Virginia, not far from Quantico, so we had quite a number of military families and several students who readily joined a branch of service upon graduation (one girl, in fact, went to Annapolis). The school where I currently teach is not near a base, but there are an increasing number of students whose parents work at NGIC, a military intelligence agency that has a large facility a few miles down the road; moreover, military recruiting has quite a presence in our cafeteria and not a year goes by when several students stand up at graduation to be recognized for their impending service.

Compare that to the high school I attended, where most of us went to a two-year or four-year college (mostly four-year), several of us applied to at least one Ivy League school (and, if you’re like me, was soundly rejected from said Ivy), and only a scattered few signed up to serve. This has a lot to do with demographics–Sayville is a middle- to upper middle-class suburb while the district where I teach is a rural area with a contrast of middle-class families and extreme poverty. The idea that you can go away and serve, obtain job training as well as money for college is appealing to a student who might not be able to afford such an expense.

That particular analysis aside (which could be a post in itself), this poem makes for good subject matter because the possibility of going off to fight in a war is very real. Now, it may seem that I am pulling off some good ‘ol hippie liberal peace-and-love indoctrination here, and I readily admit that I am a very left-leaning person; however, I like Owen’s poetry and I like having my students read Owen’s poetry because it is very real and often graphic, and is actually solid primary source material. Owen was a solider who was killed in 1918 just before the end of the war. And since our last one died a couple of years ago, I can’t have a World War I vet come in and speak to the class (I know, I know, an innovative educator would raise the dead …), this is a great resource for studying this particular moment in time. Plus, like I said, it’s graphic. I had a class full of guys a couple of years ago who ate Owen’s poetry up because of its violent, graphic nature.

The same with All Quiet on the Western Front.  We had a retired teacher who was also a Vietnam vet come in and share some of his poetry as well. Their reception to the literature and the speaker was genuinely surprising–this was easily the toughest class I’ve ever dealt with–and it was refreshing to have an honest discussion about what really happens when you’re sent off to fight in a war versus what you see on when you’re playing Call of Duty instead of the parade of bodily functions and animal noises they usually provided. It gave them an opportunity to really think about what’s out there, what’s possible, and although that might be more negative than positive, looking at the honest reality of history provides them with a rare chance for perspective.

Heroes? It’s not that simple.

soldier

A couple of weeks ago, amidst the coverage of the death and funeral of Whitney Houston, a friend of mine posted a picture to Facebook that I’m sure has been shared and re-shared a few times. The picture, which I’ve included at right, is of a soldier handing a kid a flag that was obviously draped over a casket and the caption reads “Tell Me Again how Whitney Houston inspires you and is a hero.” I know why it’s made the rounds–it was meant to help those clicking on it gain perspective because we put our entertainers (whether they be singers, actors, or athletes) on a pedestal more than our “everyday” heroes such as policemen, firefighters, or soldiers, but since I am soulless and dead inside I found myself rolling my eyes.

On Friday, my advanced English class began the same way it always does–with morning announcements. We also had video announcements that day, and those began the same way they always do, which is with a song played over a welcome screen. That day’s song was “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and while it was playing I made a pithy comment about the announcements being useful for once because it tied into our discussion for the day, a wrap-up of All Quiet on the Western Front. After announcements were over and I could finally begin my lesson, I asked the class if they knew the song (most did) and if they knew how the song was ironic. A few did but most didn’t so I mentioned the story found in the lyrics about a vet who comes home from Vietnam and has very little to come home to, something that was very true in the 1970s and 1980s and is also true about Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I Germany (I also mentioned how there’s a different version on Springsteen’s boxed set Tracks and I’ll be playing that tomorrow once I put it on my iPod), which is what makes All Quiet as relevant today as it was when the Nazis burned it in the 1930s.

The soldier, as I pointed out when we transitioned from talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” to Paul Baumer’s thoughts at the end of the novel, is human and that is the point that Remarque takes nearly 300 pages to make, after starting us off with an epigraph that is more like an abstract than anything else, saying that the purpose of the novel is to: “… try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” One of the class’s paper options will be to evaluate this statement and show how Remarque stuck to his stated purpose of showing war’s reality or veered off his path by writing something that was a protest. I focused more on the role of the soldier and view of the soldier, which Remarque doesn’t seem to take negatively or positively. He’s indeed cynical but more cynical to the nature of war itself and those who sent those boys off to war (represented in Kantorek, the main characters’ teacher, who spends his class time giving rousing speeches about serving the Fatherland) than he is toward the average soldier. In fact, if he has any feelings toward that soldier, it’s empathy (Remarque did serve and was wounded in World War I) and he obviously wants us to get inside the rather tormented head of that soldier, whom the generals and government think of not as a person but as an insignificant, replaceable number in a trench.

In fact, that insignificance hits home at the novel’s very end when Paul dies and his death isn’t even shown. There is just the following:

He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

 

The two film adaptations I’ve seen (the Oscar-winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV-movie version starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine) both give some hint as to how Paul died in the form of an off-screen gunshot, but I think they actually take away from the impact of the ending. We’ve spent so much time getting to know this character and being in his head as he slowly grows more and more depressed to the point where he feels that the world away from the war is an unknown place that his death being described so vaguely and in such an after-the-fact way is a stomach punch (in fact, a couple of years ago a student asked, “Wait, he died?”). Furthermore, the fact that his death wasn’t even noted drives home Remarque’s point. If I were adapting this for another film, I’d end with where Paul is in chapter 12–sitting in a hospital garden and thinking–and then cut to a title card that quotes exactly what Remarque wrote.

But that’s beside the point. When I teach the novel, I mention propaganda and portrayals of soldiers in the modern-day media as well as back then. I show a military recruitment ad that they’ve all seen before and ask them to look at how military life and “the mission” is shown. We listen to songs from the era (“Over There” seemed to be special torture to them). We read poems by Edgar Guest and Wilfred Owen to get differing points of view. And to bring it back to my friend and her Facebook post from a couple of weeks ago, I try to get a discussion going about how it can be dangerous to put soldiers on a pedestal and automatically label them as “heroes” just for signing up.

That’s not to denigrate the men and women of our armed forces, however. I agree that those who were spit on after coming home from Vietnam have a right to be angry because that sort of disrespect is wrong (especially when those doing the spitting probably should have looked toward people in Washington, not some kid from Fresno). But when you do the opposite and genuflect toward every man and woman in uniform, you might be showing support but you might also be doing them a similar disservice because they are not people but soldiers–or as the thousands upon thousands of faded and peeling yellow-ribbon magnets I’ve seen on our highways in the last decade say, “the troops.” It’s a way to think about them without actually having to really think about them. Three-hundred pages about a soldier, even if he is fighting a war 100 years ago and for a country we fought against in that very war, hopefully gives students some more perspective and moves them away from the bumper-sticker politics that so infests our national conversation. It’s not an easy task, as students often balk at lengthy literary texts, and my success rate with All Quiet on the Western Front is not 100% (nothing ever is), but I love teaching it because of its potential for an eye-opener and the hope that maybe they’ll think twice before automatically clicking “share” on the latest sanctimonious Facebook post.

Patriotism vs. Reality and Edgar Guest vs. Wilfred Owen

"At close grips with the Hun, we bomb the corkshaffers, etc." Two United States soldiers run past the remains of two German soldiers toward a bunker. File from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

“At close grips with the Hun, we bomb the corkshaffers, etc.” Two United States soldiers run past the remains of two German soldiers toward a bunker. File from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

By the time I have a substitute this coming Tuesday, my advanced class will have hit the halfway point of our latest novel, Erich Maria Remarqe’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This is the fourth year I’ve taught the novel (though the first time I’ve taught it to an advanced-level class) and I’ve always done the same thing when we hit the halfway point, which is take a short break and cover some World War I-era poetry and some other material from the period–both literary and historical.

The reason for the break is practical because chapters seven and eight of the novel are massive and while I gave the class a reading schedule when I passed out copies of the book a few weeks ago, you can’t assume that everyone sits down and goes and read the novel that very night. It’s also a break designed to be helpful to better understand the war itself, as while Remarque’s voice is virtually unmatched, I always like to show other perspectives.

Enter the poetry of World War I, which has gotten a bit of the short shrift in recent years, especially as there are many high school English classes that barely touch poetry at all, and those that do tend to go with the classic Brits or modern Americans. Don’t get me wrong, I love modern American poetry–a couple of weeks ago, this same class made a valiant effort at breaking down Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”–but what I love about some of the poetry I use from the First World War is that quite a bit of it comes not from people who had MFAs from Ivy League schools are were part of the Iowa Mafia, but from actual soldiers (much like Remarque and his novel).

On Tuesday, I’ll have the class complete a worksheet that goes along with five poems. The first is what I consider requisite when reading the poetry of the First World War: Lt. Col. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.”   The other four I picked because they are by two poets who are in direct contrast with one another: British soldier and author Wilfred Owen and American “People’s Poet” Edgar Guest. The specific poems I’ve chosen are Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and “The Last Laugh,” and Guest’s “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” and “Thoughts of a Soldier.”

Now, I’m sure that the word in the last paragraph that made some people recoil in horror and maybe even go all Scanners was “worksheet.” It is the bane of every “forward-thinking,” “technology-enabled,” “living in the 21st Century” teacher who would see a day off as an opportunity for learning and would set up a lesson wherein their classes watch their appendectomies live than run off 120 worksheets and leave them for a substitute. I actually see the value of the worksheet here, however. The class that will be reading these poems is extremely discussion-based. We talk. A lot. And that’s awesome. But sometimes I think that sitting quietly and writing down your thoughts on something is just as valuable as the back-and-forth with a classmate or a teacher. The questions on the worksheet involve the expected exploration of literary devices and how well they either get the poem’s message across or affect the audience, but toward the end I have a couple of questions about whether or not my students like the poems, as well as their opinions on war and patriotism.

Wilfred Owen’s poems deal with the realism of war. “The Last Laugh” is had by the weapons on the battlefield, as he deftly uses onomatopoeia and personification to get across the violence and terror of the war (the poem also has one of my favorite opening lines: “Oh Jesus Christ, I’m hit!” he said, and died). The sentiment of “Dulce et Decorum Est” can be summed up in its last stanza:

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The latin phrase translates as “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” It falls right in line with what Remarque says at this point in All Quiet on the Western Front, especially during the scene where Paul Baumer spends an afternoon at a biergarten with his father and has to endure his father’s friends’ armchair quarterbacking of the war he has been fighting and in which he has been watching his friends die. Guest’s poems, on the other hand, are right in line with what Paul’s teacher, Kantorek, tells all of them, as they celebrate the soldier and glorify his duty to his country. I have been reading through Over Here, a collection of his poems that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and I can see why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/ Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.”

I’m not saying they’re bad poems per se, but they have all the weight of one of the plethora of country music songs released in recent years that celebrate the American spirit. This is why it’s taken me quite a while to get through it–I get sugar shock. By now, you’ve probably realized the other reason why I don’t have this as a back-and-forth discussion in class, which is that I’m not the most patriotic person out there. I don’t hate America or anything, I just have never been very patriotic (I’m also not a Republican, so … yeah), so I think that taking away my and other students’ ability to interject any of my opinion or views into the discussion of the poetry actually benefits them. When you have a topic whose discussions can often get heated, it’s good to start by taking a moment to think it through yourself and get your opinion together before you discuss it with other people (especially if you’re one of those students who doesn’t like to speak up very much).

But opinions about patriotism aside, exposure to these poems is beneficial because it helps capture a particular moment in world history in a way that goes beyond the basic facts that are memorized in history class. Owen’s vivid realism is simultaneously exciting, gory, and moving; Guest’s flag-waving is a sentiment that still exists today, albeit in different forms (country songs, television programs, random “shared” posts on Facebook) and each has its place and its use.