Thursday, June 10, 2010

Better Late for Memorial Day than Never...

I have just finished reading Siegfried Sassoon's book, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. Sassoon is famous mostly as a poet, maybe THE poet, of WWI. The Wikipedia article (you may follow the link above) tells me that this is a book that British kids get assigned to read in school. Well, we never had it assigned over on this side of pond and I never even heard of it til I started researching Fox Hunting (don't ask, but rest assured my research is not for protest purposes or because I am going to hunt anything). Anyway, I am happy that I discovered it as a 40-something. It would have been wasted on me at 16.

Mostly MoaFHM is about the life of a fictionalized Sassoon prior to WWI - and a way of life that was swept away irretrievably by the War. It is written so beautifully, at least in sections, I just have to gape. Here's a section I read the other night. It comes, just near the end of the book as Sherston, the narrator, is thinking back to the period of time on the Western front, shortly after the death of his best friend.

I can see myself sitting in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris behind the support line. There is a strong smell of chloride of lime. I am scraping the caked mud off my wire-torn puttees with a rusty entrenching tool. Last night I was out patrolling with Private O'Brien, who used to be a dock labourer at Cardiff. We threw a few Mills' bombs at a German working-party who were putting up some wire and had no wish to do us any harm. Probably I am feeling pleased with myself about this. Now and and again a leisurely five-nine shell passes overhead in the blue air where the larks are singing. The sound of the shell is like water trickling into a can. The curve of its trajectory sounds peaceful until the culminating crash. A little weasel runs past my outstretched feet, looking at me with tiny bright eyes, apparently unafraid. One of our shrapnel shells, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapours take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolved into nothingness. Perhaps the shell has killed someone. Whether it has or whether it hasn't, I continue to scrape my puttees, and the weasel goes about his business.



R. Sherman said...

As horrible as it sounds, WWI created a lot of great writers, much more so than WWII. I've often tried to figure out "why," and I think it's because of the static nature of trench combat. It provided a lot of "down time" between moments of terror for the poetic to organize their thoughts.

Thanks for directing us to that book. I'd not heard of it either.


Madame DeFarge said...

I haven't read this book, as I tend to shy away from Sassoon for some odd reason. But you have inspired me to reach out and try. Thanks.

KSV Woolfoot said...

Hey R - Thoughtful as usual. What do you think of the fact that the officer class in WWI really came from elite, highly educated (classically educated) backgrounds as another contributing factor.

MMe - I would be very interested to hear what you thought of it.

R. Sherman said...

I agree.

From the books I've read, the vast majority of officers, at least at the early stages, came from the well-off class. Unfortunately, most of them got wacked early on. Thus, in Britain, 1916 saw the "Pals Battalions" and more of the great unwashed elevated to officer rank.

Of course, the U.S. didn't necessarily have that problem, though we weren't in the war that long.