Monday, September 14, 2015

War Poets 2 - Siegfried Sassoon: "The General" - In memory of Ted Soffe

‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

This is perhaps Sassoon's best known poem.  Short and to the point. with a beautifully planned and unexpected end.  

There is a story about the picture I have used.  It is of Ted Soffe a member of a established family in the New Forest village where I live.  The family recently asked to have his picture (the one above) placed in our village church as a memorial to the 100th anniversary of  his death in Gallipoli in September 2015.  The picture is now on the altar and we are asked to pray for him and his comrades.

Sassoon's poem backs up the feeling that the generals made a mess of this war.  This was once the accepted view but, with time, opinion on this has shifted a little and many now think that the generals were faced with a totally new type of war and by and large did surprisingly well.  
The Gallipoli campaign however is still thought of  as a fiasco and a terrible waste of life including that of Ted Soffe.  So perhaps it makes sense to associate this poem with Gallipoli and Ted Soffe.  Though, to be fair, the fault was more with the politician's than the military.  Here is a good summary of story.  The Australians and New Zealanders who suffered disproportional casualties still remain extremely bitter about Gallipoli.  Overall there were well over 100,000 casualties in Gallipoli, many of them through disease rather than bullets with about two thirds of the casualties being Turkish.  However in Turkey it is still regarded as a great victory.

As well as the Gallipoli campaign and the death of Ted Soffe and many an other, 2015 also marks the centenary of my father joining the army in World War I.  He survived or I would not be here.  I suppose the war, long gone in most respects, is being remembered by thousands of families across Europe and beyond.  To mark my father's centenary his writings on the war and his views on Siegfried Sassoon are about to be published in three e~books.  More information at

PS: I find that one historian who wrote of Gallipoli was a school friend of mine Robert Rhodes James, now sadly dead.  I will always remember him for his wild enthusiasms for this, that and the other schoolboy craze and his consistent and much needed friendship when I was a new boy at the school.  I miss you Rhodes James, and wish I had thought to thank you while you were still alive.

PPS.  I have now been in touch with Angela Rhodes James his wife and at least had the opportunity to tell her the story about her husband.  I think it gave her pleasure to know that he was remembered from so long ago.  She is currently working to put Rhodes James's archive on line.  I think this is the link. 

I should really add a bit more about Ted Soffe.  I hope to in due course.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Poem of the week - On reading the war poets - start of a series about war poetry

There's no such thing as bad publicity” Sam Goldwyn

I'd like to see a tank come through the class
Smothered in flags, steered by a bold Dragoon,
While teacher lists the horrors of old wars
And reads out poems by Owen and Sassoon.

Then hearts would jump, and brightness fill young eyes
And the whole room would fill with tears and cheers,
For war's addictive and it lifts our hearts
Despite its mounds of deaths and lakes of tears.

Yes there's excitement, beauty, friendship, love
Among the young who fight an ugly war.
This truth forgotten, then forget the hope
That someday we will suffer war no more.

Nick Mellersh 2015

I have often thought that the war poets are popular in part at least more because we are excited by war just as much as we are horrified by it. So this poem is a sort of parody of Sassoon's Blighters (see below) that tries to make that point. I often think that maybe war poems do as much to promote war as to discourage it.

No question that the poems are good.  Great even. Everything by Sassoon is beautifully made and seems to fit perfectly into place.  (Notice how my poem is stretched out to three stanza's while Sassoon manages it in two and with two rhymes in each stanza.) Owen is more swept with emotion and loose than Sassoon but in a way easier to read and empathize with. Anyway I hope to get my friends the Pascoes, Nigel and Lisa to record a set of poems by Sassoon and Owen and  perhaps add one or of my own.  I am struggling with a poem called "Who reads the Peace Poets."  So I hope you'll be following this and giving your opinions on whether you think Owen is better than Sassoon and on how and if the world can learn to live without war.  This is in part of course because I am just about to publish my father's life of Sassoon as an ebook - see the ebook tab at the top of this page.

Working on my dad's World War i ebook has made me think a lot about war, why we do it and how we can avoid it.

Anyway here is the Sassoon poem.

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
Siegfried Sassoon