In The White Monkey (the fourth novel in the Forsyte saga, published in 1924) Galsworthy creates an ex-soldier poet Wilfred Desert (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable). He is upper-class and disillusioned: “When the war broke out he had just left Eton; when the war was over he was twenty-three, as old a young man as ever turned a stave.” Galsworthy imagines how he might have summed up the way that the war might have changed Desert’s view of life:
I lived so long with horror and death; I saw men so in the raw; I put hope of anything out of my mind so utterly, that I can never more have the faintest respect for theories, promises, conventions, moralities, and principles. I have hated too much the men who wallowed in them while I was wallowing in the mud. Illusion is off. No religion and no philosophy will satisfy me – words, all words. I still have my senses – no thanks to them; am still capable – I find – of passion; can still grit my teeth and grin; have still some feeling of trench loyalty, but whether real or just a complex, I don’t know. I am dangerous, but not so dangerous as those who trade in words, principles, theories, and all manner of fanatical idiocy to be worked out in the blood and sweat of other men. The war’s done one thing for me – converted life to comedy. Laugh at it – there’s nothing else to do!
The comedy is of a very mirthless kind. Desert is disengaged from life, and does little except try to steal his best friend’s wife. Eventually he goes off to Arabia, a land whose uncompromising emptiness matches the vacuum inside himself. We are shown one example of his verse:
THE COURT MARTIAL
“See ’ere! I’m myde o’ nerves and blood
The syme as you, not meant to be
Froze stiff up to me ribs in mud.
You try it, like I ‘ave, an’ see!
“‘Aye, you snug beauty brass hats, when
You stick what I stuck out that d’y,
An’ keep yer ruddy ‘earts up—then
You’ll learn, maybe, the right to s’y:
“‘Take aht an’ shoot ’im in the snow,
Shoot ’im for cowardice! ‘E who serves
His King and Country’s got to know
There’s no such bloody thing as nerves.’”
This is quite an interesting poem, but not very convincing. Galsworthy (a non-combatant who had seen the results of war in French hospitals) is making his combatant poet speak not in his own voice, but in that of an imagined defiant deserter, a brave coward. By and large, officer poets did not write in sub-Kipling mock-cockney.
The subject is one that few real war poets seem to have touched; there is Frankau’s The Deserter, but its tone is very different:
I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.
The bolt-heads locked to the cartridge;
The rifles steadied to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.
‘Fire!’ called the Sargeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke;
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in the cordite-smoke.
This poem seems to me to be much better than Galsworthy/Desert’s, probably because it it a sincere attempt to resolve two contradictory feelings. Frankau has a sense of the awfulness of the occasion, even as he endorses the punishment. The line “As cold stock nestled at colder cheek” implicates the readers, puts us in the position of the firing squad. We’re asked to share the responsibility. The phrase “nameless man” is powerful. Nameless because unmentionable? Nameless because the manner of his death would not be reported back to his family? Nameless because the firing squad don’t know the name of the man they’re killing? Nameless because in a mass army individual names are irrelevant? All of these, perhaps. The word “shameless” has similar ramifications.
Galsworthy/Desert, on the other hand, fail to rise to the awfulness of the situation. The man speaks a petulant protest in thin language. the prospect of approaching death has not concentrated his mind into poetry. Most of the rhyme-words are very weak. This is second-hand protest, written by someone a long way from the event. It’s the ancestor of Private Peaceful and suchlike.
Did Sassoon ever write about someone shot at dawn? I don’t think so, offhand, though maybe there’s something in the collected poems. But his lines in The Hero (though spoken by a character, a more conventional officer than Sassoon himself) don’t suggest much sympathy with those who lost their nerve:
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
Novelists had more to say: maybe Galsworthy was thinking of Herbert’s The Secret Battle when he gave this poem to his character. Herbert’s treatment of the question is far less crude than this, though, and written with passion.