I have spent the last few weeks marking AS level scripts for the new AQA English Literature exam, Paper LTA1B, about literature of the First World War. So I thought I’d put a few hints and tips from a marker here, for the benefit of any teachers or students who might happen to find this blog.
I think the paper is a tricky one because it requires some basic historical understanding as well as literary knowledge. In answering Question One, students are given marks for relating an unseen passage not only to other texts, but also to a historical context.
Poorer candidates often fall down because they have no sense that they are writing about a very different world, and one where issues matter. It is hard for an examiner to find marks for the student who wrote: “Sassoon was not a great fan of the war and did not really agree with it.” This is a statement from the slacker politics of vague opinions about subjects you feel disconnected from – hardly seeming to belong to the same world as Sassoon’s passion and courage.
When it comes to History, in almost every script I marked, futility rules. Teachers have given the students a historical framework (maybe based on the interpretation given in Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death ) that at the beginning of the War, men joined up in a spirit of mindless patriotism, which continued until the Battle of the Somme, after which everybody became disillusioned, and then nobody had any respect for the Generals.
Many are convinced that British participation in the War was a complete failure. Several students whose papers I marked were surprised that (in a letter to his mother set as an unseen passage for commentary) Owen refers to successful attacks that gained their objectives. This does not tally, they say, with what they have read about the war. Some suggest that Owen was hiding the truth from his mother, and really the attack had been a disaster like all the others. There is very little recognition that this was a war that the British and their allies won. I strongly suspect that the historical knowledge of many teachers is hazy. Maybe I’ll produce a reading list for students to give their teachers, including texts like Gary Sheffield’s ‘Forgotten Victory’, Brian Bond’s The Unquiet Western Front and Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory, which question the orthodox literary view that the War was entirely futile.
One particularly poor centre seems to have been trained to divide all war literature into “pro-war” (bad) and “anti-war” (good). All wartime texts are slotted into one or other category, which does not encourage careful reading of those (such as the Wilfred Owen letter set for commentary in the exam) where attitudes are ambivalent or confused.
Don’t get me wrong. The war-as-futile argument is a respectable point of view, and I was very happy to give very good marks to students who argued it well. The trouble is that it frequently seemed to get in the way between some of the candidates and an objective reading of the passage they had in front of them.
Many candidates are completely convinced that all Generals were always uncaring, and see evidence for it everywhere. Some prove the point by describing the behaviour of General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, as though that were a documentary. One student wrote indignantly about Tynan’s poem Joining the Colours, in which soldiers go off to war on buses, playing tin whistles and mouth organs that it was shameful that the Generals had not provided them with proper instruments.
Several commented on Robert Graves’s sardonic little poem, The Leveller, about two contrasting soldiers killed by the same shell. It ends:
Old Sergeant Smith, kindest of men,
Wrote out two copies there and then
Of his accustomed funeral speech
To cheer the womanfolk of each:-
“He died a hero’s death: and we
His comrades of ‘A’ Company
Deeply regret his death: we shall
All deeply miss so true a pal.”
Three candidates whose work I marked said that this proved the callousness of generals, who could not even be bothered to know their men individually. They quite missed Graves’s insistence that the Sergeant (a very long way from being a General) was kindly. Very few candidates realised that letter-writing under these circumstances is difficult, and that if the good sergeant had found a formula that would alleviate the pain of mothers and widows, he was probably wise to use it. Well, the candidates are young. One day some of them will have to write letters of condolence. Won’t they too look for words that might ease the pain? Won’t they too be tempted to use stock phrases?
Students are asked to relate the unseen passage on the exam paper to their wider reading, and many do this very well. Problems come when students haven’t read much, and comparisons become forced. Weak candidates display their memory of Blackadder, rarely to useful effect, unless they are able to contrast its style with that of other writing. A lot of schools obviously furnish their students with a book of snippets from World War One literature. This can be useful, but can lead the dimmer students into mistakes. One wrote that there is no conflict between the characters in Journey’s End. Eh? As a marker I was flummoxed by this more than somewhat inaccurate statement until I realised from her further comments that the poor girl had only read one scene of the play (in which the soldiers were getting on well) and had taken this as representative of the whole thing.
Candidates like using big words, but teachers need to warn students that these should be used accurately. I marked one centre where the word of choice was ‘juxtaposing’. They used it in all sorts of ways, such as:
The rhyme scheme is juxtaposing of the content.
What can that possibly mean?
And I lost count of the different spellings of ‘euphemism’ that students offered.
(By the way, I know it’s probably not fair to make fun of what students write in the stress of an exam, but I can’t help mentioning the candidate who thought the actors in Oh What a Lovely War were dressed as pirates (meaning pierrots). Or the one who wrote about Sorley’s poem, ‘Untilted’.).
If I were preparing an AS-level class for this paper, the thing that I would insist on every lesson is that most people had ambivalent feelings about the War. There were a few unthinking jingoists, and a few outright pacifists, but for the most part most people of Britain believed in two propositions that were difficult to reconcile.
1. They knew that the war was in a righteous cause, and believed that it would have been wrong for Britain to keep out of the conflict in 1914.
2. They knew that the cost of any war was terrible, and that this war’s cost was particularly appalling.
Almost all non-trivial wartime literature can be seen as an attempt to reconcile these two dissonant propositions. (Some later texts, of course, do not accept the righteousness of the cause, and therefore provide a simplified view of the war, the ‘futility’ myth so obviously beloved of many teachers.) If you’re presented with a piece like the Owen extract, it can be useful to see how far the writing endorses these two propositions, and how it tries to resolve the conflict.