Saturday, November 28, 2015

War Poets 7: You can't blame us

“You can't blame us” said the generals,
“We did what you told us to do.
We thought that you asked us to win the war.
And we won it. What more could we do?”

“You can't blame us” said the government.
“We had to defend the land,
And these things always come at a cost,
Surely you understand.”

“You can't blame me, said the soldier.
I just did what I was told.
And anyway I was simply a kid.
I was killed at twenty years old.”

So was it all simply nobody's fault?
The horror, the killing the pain?
It seems like the truth. But if it is true,
Why it's certain to happen again.
                                      Nick Mellersh November 2015

Wrote this after going to a talk with a retired general who lives in a village not far from us. (The link at "general" leads to more about him.)  His talk was entitled "Lions Led by Donkeys." It was about the first world war and whether the generals had been given an unfairly bad press.  

He is an impressive and intelligent man and he made the case very strongly that the generals had been unfairly blamed.  The type of war was new, the enemy efficient and determined yet the British army (unlike the French and the German) never showed signs of falling apart. And they were the army that brought it to an end in the last 100 days.  Days my father missed as he was at home in hospital with his third wound. The generals, given the circumstances did a surprisingly good job.

I believe this to be true.  And so did my father who fought in the war and wrote three books about it. But somehow the whole thing left me feeling unhappy.  If everyone was doing their best (and generally they were) why was the outcome so terrible. The preservation of peace is a dilemma and mankind seems thoroughly bad at it.  As I write this the clouds of war are gathering.  We must try harder than a predecessors if we are going to avoid another ghastly bloodbath  But surprisingly we avoided a nuclear war in the fifties and sixties when that seemed inevitable so let us not give up hope.

(What seems to me very frightening is the way the debate is skewed. Corbyn asks whether the plan to drop more bombs on ISIS (and kill a few more misguided idealistic young men) is really a part of a coherent military strategy. The press discuss everything but this. Mostly "should we leave it to our allies to do all the dirty work then", and "I suppose Corby thinks we can just send a few policemen around to Raqua and arrest them all"  But thinking back to the 50's maybe we can sort out the mess in the middle east without making things a million times worse.  I hope so.)

The last few weeks of this blog have been dealing with serious issues mostly to mark the publication as ebooks of my father's books about World War I.  You can have a look at excerpts from them all at

Next week it should be time for something a bit more happy.  Oh yes and for some beautiful drawing have a look at my wife's blog, this week showing four life drawings. 

PS: I managed to find the bit that was in the Lymington times about my dad's books today.  It's up on the website.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

War Poets 6: Who reads the peace poets?

War poets! - we love 'em
They're exciting and never a bore.
War poets!- there's action, emotion,
There''s glory and horror and gore.

Where are the peace poets?
You won't find their books on our shelf.
The tiresome old, boring old, treadmill of life
We've experienced that for our self.

Yes give us the glory, the action,
The pity the horror, the gore.
Yes let's read the war poets
While we wait for another war.
                                Nick Mellersh November 11 2015

Well I've written it the peace poets poem that has been going around my head for a long time.  Not aas good as it looked in my mind but not bad I think.  At least it is short.  It is too easy to run on and on when not bound by some set form like the sonnet.

As you can see from the earlier posts I'm a bit doubtful about the influence of the war poets.  It is so hard to mourn the horrors of war without in some way glorying in it.  War poetry seems to me to verge on the edge of pornographic violence.  I suppose this is part of the old argument between Plato and Aristotle.  In brief the  argument goes.  Plato "Watching all these plays about people killing each other just encourages people to do it."  Aristotle "No no, it enables us to feel the horror without actually really doing it - it purges the mind/"  The argument is pretty much that, though put at greater length (try here to learn more.) .  And the answer is really we don't know whether it is good or bad, or maybe we don't care.  People are going to watch violence and read about violence whether it's bad for them or not.

Perhaps it also throws light on the difference between Owen and Sassoon.  The last two posts on this blog have been readings by my friend Nigel Pascoe of poems by this pair of World War I poets.  Sassoon's "The General" distances itself from the horrors.  Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" dives straight in and immediately involves the reader in the emotion and the horror.  Those, like myself and my father, who prefer Sassoon to Owen are perhaps fearful that being too close to the emotion is too much like glorying in it.  Hard to say who is right.  Hard to remember the dead of the wars in a way that seems honest and right.

I mention my father because I have just published his books on World War I as ebooks.  He fought on the front from 2015 and was wounded several times.  There are three of these books, an autobiographical novel, a true autobiography, written many years later, and a life of Siegfried Sassoon which of course mentions Owen (Sassoon and Owen met in a shell-shock hospital and Sassoon encouraged and influenced Owen.)  You can read about my father's books here on the njeanius website and there is plenty on the web about the meeting of Sassoon and Owen.  You could start here.

There's a lot more I would like to write more generally about poetry and what it is for.  Also I have found on Google (thanks be to Google) the parody of "Scorn not the Sonnet" about keeping poems short.  I hope to cover it in my n ext when I will leave war poetry for a bit.
Link to my Dad's World War I books