OUT OF THE DEPTHS

From The Tribunal August 1st 1918

This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

Among the mass of poetry which has been inspired by the war it is refreshing to find something which does not hold up for admiration that which every soldier knows to be a revoltingly ugly business. Realism in a war poem is rare. Too often we see murder presented in a false light of glorification. At a time therefore when songs and poetry are being used in the service of militarism, a volume of verse which strives after truth is particularly welcome.

Mr. Seigfried Sassoon is a unique war poet. He alone of our young writers has succeeded in conveying through the medium of verse something of war’s horror and its effect upon the soldier. The “Old Huntsman” is already well known. Those to whom it appealed will be interested in “Counter Attack and other Poems,” which contains his more recent work. This collection was aptly pronounced by a reviewer to be the production of a “soul in torment.” It voices the cry of a heart harrowed by personal contact with the frightfulness of a war which is fast devouring “The unreturning army that was youth.” It has a poignant interest for all who are working for the deliverance of mankind from the horror and misery through which we are now passing. The following for example is a description of a German trench captured in an advance:-

“The place was rotten with dead: green clumsy legs,
High booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps,
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand bags, loosely filled;
Bulged clotted heads slept in plastering slime”

In “Remorse” we have a poor “Tommy” lost in a muddy swamp:-

“Remembering how he saw those Germans run
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees;
Green-faced they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking them like pigs… ‘Oh Hell!’
He thought – ‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds,’”

He treats with irony and satire in more than one poems the attitude of bellicose old men:

“ . . . . . who died
Slow natural deaths – old men with ugly souls
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.”

“The Fathers” is a picture of “two cross goggle-eyed” old men talking platitudes about the war. One says that his son “Arthur is getting all the fun,” and the other replies:-

“Yes, . . . . that’s the luck!
My boy’s quite broken-hearted, stuck
In England training all the year,”

In a “Fight to a finish” Tommies on their return charge in exasperation at the “Yellow Pressmen” who “thronged the sunlit street to the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.”

It would be impossible to give here all the points of view from which the war is painted by the poet. Two more must suffice. Boys are now forced to become soldiers at the age of 18. This fact comes to one’s mind with startling force on reading “Suicide in the trenches,” which shows how a ‘simple soldier boy’ driven to distraction by a winter of ‘crumps and lice’ puts a bullet through his brain. It ends:-

“You snug faced cowards with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier-lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Those acquainted with the attitude take up last year by Mr. Sassoon with regard to military service will see a personal note in “Banishment,” where he says:-

“I am banished from the patient men who fight…

…The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed, gagged and riven
By grappling guns. Love drove with me to rebel.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell,
And in their tortured eyes I am forgiven.”

Since the beginning of this war many men have experienced this struggle between the love which moves them to strive to free their fellow men by rebellion, and that which impels them to share the suffering of their combatant brothers.

It is difficult to take up what to so many appears to be a stand of indifferent aloofness, yet to us the way is clear. To assist or acquiesce in keeping alive what Mr. Sassoon calls “The foul beast of war that bludgeons life” is impossible. We believe that a position in the army is incompatible with pacifism. In saying this we do not seek to detract in any way from the value of the peace service which we believe Seigfried Sassoon to be rendering. To reveal the truth about war is to do much, and although to some the material with which he works may appear to be unfitted for poetic expression, none can deny the arresting force of what are undoubtedly sincere creations.
PFH

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