Tag Archives: First World War

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A birthday is a good time to remember a neglected author, especially one of the many neglected women authors. Rebecca West was born on 21stDecember 1892. She was progressive, radical in her early life, and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was considered quite risky. It was published in the last year of the First World War. It is an unusual criticism of the harm that war can do.

Rebecca West herself had not lived her life as she a girl of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an  ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorsand I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

Cover: detail from The Other Room by Vanessa Bell

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) of the soldier, Chris, wait for their hero to return and for the war to end. In anticipation they have spent time and money of the house he redesigned. They have made it beautiful for his return. Kitty herself is a beautiful woman, very conscious of her social value and of the persuasive powers of her beauty.

The novel is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, and she is in love with this man whom she has known since childhood. She lives with Kitty and believes that she shares Kitty’s values: the importance of behaving properly, and the value of beautiful things and surroundings. As they wait, a little anxious for they have not heard from Chris for a couple of weeks, Jenny reflects on the money they have spent on the garden and the furnishings of Baldry Court.

I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. (16)

Notice the word ‘surface’, for eventually both Jenny and Chris, but not Kitty, would see the life they had created and were preserving for Chris was just that – a surface. Underneath there was a vacuum.

As they are waiting news comes from a strange woman, lower class, not wearing beautiful clothes and her body not well preserved. Jenny and Kitty are revolted by the poverty and careworn appearance of Mrs Grey. This is Margaret who Chris had loved 15 years before. She tells Kitty and Jenny that Chris has amnesia.

The soldier is sent back from the war. He has forgotten Kitty, the remodelled house, the war – everything of the last few years. In talking to Jenny he reveals that he only feels comfortable around Margaret and she agrees to come and be with him, even though she too is now married.

The situation is difficult. Kitty, used to getting her own way, finds herself replaced by Margaret in Chris’s affections, who comes to share her days with Chris. It is not spelled out precisely how intimate they become, but Kitty finds it more and more intolerable. Jenny, on the other hand, finds herself increasingly respecting Margaret and her relationship with Chris.

Eventually, Margaret sees that the way to ‘cure’ the soldier is to remind him of his dead son. Here is a dilemma: to bring back his memory will mean he has to return to the front, and he will loose the happy state into which he has entered with Margaret.

It is also clear that it is more than the war that has caused his amnesia: his life with Kitty is all on the surface. The reader sees that relationships which are all about servicing and pleasing the men are flawed.

In the final scene Kitty asks Jenny to watch from the house for his return after Margaret has forced Chris to see the truth and regain his memory. Jenny sees him approach the house across the lawn.

He wore a dreadful decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were not yet the worst circumstance of his return. …

“Jenny, Jenny! How does he look?”

“Oh …” How could I say it? “Every inch a soldier.”

She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.

I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered slowly. “He’s cured!” (187-8)

It is a victory for appearance, surface, doing things because others say they are right, ignoring your own heart. And the warning that Chris must return to the front suggests that the war is itself an attack on deeper, more decent ways of loving and being.

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She died in 1983 aged 90. She had written and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca Westwas first published in 1918. I read the edition by Virago Classics (1980) which has an introduction by Victoria Glendining. 188pp It has been reissued with a striking new cover.

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This is a novel I had some awareness of, but had never read, never put it in my tbr pile. But when the commemorations for the end of the First World War were taking place last month it appeared on several reading lists. How can I have missed it, ignored it for so long? It’s a jewel and was recognised as such when it was first published in 1980 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

It’s not just a novel about the damage of war. It is more about the value of having one or two really good experiences in life, about restorative processes and having good times in the past to draw on. If like me you have not taken much notice of it I recommend that you do now.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country is set in the 1920s, in a village called Oxgodby, somewhere up north. The narrator is Tom Birkin, a young man, physically damaged and mentally strained during the First World War and recently abandoned by his wife. He has come to the village to restore a mural in the parish church. It is a task he does not relish because he expects the villagers to be unfriendly and the mural to be a disappointment.

Despite being a short novel the characters he meets are all well-rounded people, with their own difficulties and histories. Some are less easy to like, such as the vicar who seems to be unable to see beyond the mundane. He is concerned that Tom’s contract is correctly observed and has little respect for the old boiler that heats the church.

In contrast is Kathy Ellerbeck. Tom is befriended by this child of about 14, the stationmaster’s daughter and who has complete understanding of herself and her village, a love of music and the knowledge of how to relate to Tom.

Then there is Moon, a kind of amateur archaeologist, also damaged during the war, who lives in a tent visible from Tom’s church tower. They strike up a friendship. And the vicar’s wife and the stationmaster and and and …

These are not pastiche yokels like in Cold Comfort Farm, rather they challenge Tom’s sense that companionship will be restricted in a village or by northerners.

He begins the novel in retreat, living alone in the church tower, with few possessions, and an expectation of being treated as an outsider. Instead he finds the month becomes idyllic as he is accepted warmly, admired for his skill and he even falls for the vicar’s wife. Their welcome into the village has a restorative effect on him.

He also encounters and admires great workmanship. It starts with the church boiler but he quickly develops great respect for the artist who created the mural. And later he visits an organ shop in Rippon where there is more to admire.

And the rural landscape, the late summer countryside rituals, the long golden late summer evenings, these also work some kind of magic. Until it is time to leave.

A Month in the Country  is very short, too short for anything as definite as chapters. Almost all the narrative relates to the month of the title, there is very little about what preceded this time, or what followed. We learn that Tom was conscripted into the army and had been an Advance Signaller while in action, a role from which few returned. We also find that he did not follow up any connection he made during that month, or revisit the village. He has been writing this account from the perspective of an old man. This is how the novel finishes.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the field, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So in my memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow. (104)

His account of the month in Oxgodby reminds us of the variousness of humans, how we cast people as outsiders for physical deformity, religion, sexuality, place of origin. Beyond those barriers connection, recovery and love can be found.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr, first published in 1980. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition published in 2000, with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. 104pp

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The Story of the Conchie Road

In May 2017 I was walking on Dartmoor. I was on a clear track into Princetown from the east, with views of the prison and the tv mast.

I had walked across the open moor, through the remains of Whiteworks, an old tin mine, across Foxton Mire – a quaker to use the phrase adopted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was promised a cist called the Crock of Gold. And then I checked the directions for the walk

Turn left … and climb gently, heading straight for the TV mast in the distance. The path later gives way to a better-surfaced gritty track, the result of the hard labour of conscientious objectors during the First World War; the war ended before the track could be completed. … [From Dartmoor Walks, Pathfinder Guide, walk 24).

My interest was immediately aroused. What were conscientious objectors doing on Dartmoor and why were they building unfinished roads? I began my researches. This post is the history of a short story and how that walk in May 2017 took me and my writing to places I would never have predicted.

The Conchie Road or the Road to Nowhere

My researches turned up information about COs (conscientious objectors) and about the project to build the road. About 1000 COs were housed in Dartmoor Prison buildings, renamed Princetown Work Centre after conscription was introduced in 1916. Men who refused to join the armed forces faced a tribunal and some were granted exemptions. They had religious or political objections. The COs on Dartmoor were required to do work ‘of national importance’. There was a plan to develop the Prince of Wales’s land on Dartmoor, and the road was intended to service these farms.

The land was very poor, even when drained by the COs, and even today is very thin. It was not a project with much prospect of success and the road was nicknamed ’the road to nowhere’.

Sometimes ideas are presented to writers. The nickname of the road to nowhere nicely stood for the experience of COs in 1916 through to the years after the war. The metaphorical Conchie Road was a hard one and I wrote a short story about Sam Skelton, a political CO, who was sent to Dartmoor, who worked on the road, and who found very little respect after the war. I called it The Conchie Road.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

I recently wrote a post about the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It involved ordinary people (that is, not historians) and supported about 30 research projects into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. One of these concerned COs from Devon. I went to a presentation about the research into the men who refused to fight. Many, many of them were Friends, and the Exeter Meeting hosted the event. You can find the previous post Devon Voices from WW1 here.

Many of the Quaker COs joined the ambulance brigades and served at the front; others refused to support the war in any way and were sent to work camps, including Princetown.

I offered my story to the Heritage Project and it is included in the archives.

Article in Devon Life

I found that many local people knew nothing about the road, or about the presence of COs on Dartmoor during the First World War. I was keen to share the outcomes of my research and the pleasure of the walk so I submitted an article to Devon Life. It was published in April 2018 under the title Pacifists’ Pathway. It presented the history of the road and the COs and recommended walkers to try it out. I took pictures of the road in December to accompany the article, having persuaded my sister to join me on a very slushy walk.

The Plaque for The Conchie Road

On November 3rdthis year I attended the ceremony honouring the COs in Princetown. We began with a vigil outside the Dartmoor Information Centre, and then walked to the point on the Conchie Road where a plaque was unveiled. It was organised by Friends. It was also attended by Simon Dell, historian of Dartmoor, who wrote the book The Dartmoor Conchies.

As we stood in silence during the vigil in Princetown a long line of soldiers, weighed down with equipment, bearing arms, faces blackened, filed past the circle of silence. It seemed very inappropriate.

At the plaque it was drizzling, cows had assembled under the trees, and we could see walkers on the path. I had been asked to read some of my story. It was a strange experience to read the passage where Sam and his mates are sent to build the road, grumbling at the waste of their energies and to read it in the place it was set, in the rain, with an audience of cows and Friends.

We also heard from the daughter of a CO, also a Friend. Her father had met and fallen in love with his wife in Princetown. He never spoke of his experiences as a CO, she told us.

2018 Exeter Short Story Prize

A few days after the ceremony I was thrilled and very proud to discover that my story had been shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Short Story Prize.

The Dartmoor Conchies (Dartmoor Prison’s Conscientious Objectors of The Great War) by Simon Dell, published in 2017 by the Dartmoor Company.

Update May 2019

You can read the story in Better Fetch A Chair,  the collection of my short stories published in December 2018.

And if you want to obtain a copy for the special reduced price of £5 (p&p included) you can either email me (lodgecm@gmail.com) or DM me on twitter @lodge_c and I will send you details.

Better Fetch A Chair  by Caroline Lodge, published by Bookword in 2018. 142pp. Cover price is £8.99 but available for £5.

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Rereading Women’s Poetry from The Great War

The commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the First World War have passed their second Christmas. Now the centenary events have become muted, part of the background. While male war poets have been justly celebrated, women’s poetry has been heard much less frequently. Indeed you could argue that ‘war poet’ means a soldier, a man.

115 Ipplepen poppies

The Great War impacted upon everybody. Women had to deal with the absence and possible death of their menfolk. At home the suffragette campaign was suspended and women found they were required to take over ‘men’s work’, including in munitions factories. Many did heroic medical work, including at the front. They managed rationing and the other restrictions on their lives. One of the most significant effects were the loss of nearly a million men from the population. I still find myself moved by the implications of these lines by Margaret Postgate Cole from Praematuri:

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.

Here is the slightly revised post I first published on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

Women’s Poetry and The Great War

How do we remember the First World War? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication.

115 W Owen

The cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice. This is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An example is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

All the dreariness of war

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains the neglect – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

234 Scars cover

I know of only one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain, To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while his wind blow out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (100)

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate. (2)

Women paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancées, wives, daughters …

Surviving Survival

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice a woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of surplus women:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (22)

A woman might suffer considerable hardship to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

Lest we forget

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be more poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us also remember the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we do not forget.

137 LofGG coverAmong the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose books are still available, we can name five:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981.

Related

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

Women in War – Scars upon my Heart from DoveGreyReader Scribbles’ blog in November 2012.

Novels by Winifred Holby reviewed on this blog: The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding.

Over to you

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

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Women’s Poetry and The Great War

I am posting this on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War. How do we remember that war? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

115 poppy wreaths

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication. The price was 10s 6d. I was part of a generation that believed in ‘telling it like it is’, and was fiercely pacifist.

115 W OwenThe cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice and is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An up-to-the-minute example of this side-lining is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

115 Ipplepen poppies

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains in part the neglect of women’s experience – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

115 Scars coverI only know one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain called To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (p15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:

The world gyrates too. God is good

That while his wind blow out the light

For those who hourly die for us –

We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (p100)

115 silhouettes TommyWomen paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all once had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancees, wives, daughters …

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,

And when I leave the meadow, almost wait

That you should open first the wooden gate. (p2)

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of women after the war:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead

But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (p22)

The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice women had to adjust to life with an unbalanced demography. A woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’.A woman might suffer considerable hardship having to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

115 Women of B

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us include also the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we can remember.

Among the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose novels are still available, we can name:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

 

Subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right and you will receive email notifications of future blogposts.

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