‘We’

Re-reading J.G. Fuller’s very good book Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918 (1990) I came across this poem (or maybe it’s just a snippet from a longer text – I don’t know) quoted from a 1917 issue of The Outpost (Journal of the Glasgow Commercial Bn.) No author is given:

We are marching back from the battle,
Where we’ve all left mates behind,
And our officers are gloomy,
And the N.C.O.’s are kind, –
When a jew’s harp breaks the silence,
Purring out an old refrain;
And we thunder through the village,
Roaring ‘Here we are again.’

I think this is rather a good poem. The two lines about officers and N.C.O.s suggest more about relationships between the ranks than some novels do . That word ‘purring’ is a very good description of the distinctive sound of the jew’s harp, and the ending turns ‘Here We Are Again’ (Which I have always thought the most banal of First World War songs) into a glorious roar of triumph at having survived.

A thing that struck me, though, was the importance of of the word ‘we’ in the poem. The speaker is not an individual ‘I’ but ‘we’, a battalion. And how often do you find this in the sort of war poem that has made its way into the canon? Looking through a respectable anthology I find many records of personal experience, few of communal. Wilfred Owen begins a poem ‘We’d found an old Boche dug-out…’, but it becomes an ‘I’ poem when the story of communal action soon turns into one of an intense personal reaction to the horror, and personal memory.

For proper ‘we’ poems we mostly need to turn to the less surely canonised writers – to Robert Service and Patrick MacGill, and to the non-professional rhymers of  Vivien Noakes’s splendid Voices of Silence anthology.

Why is this? Partly, I think, because critics and anthology-compilers have shared a definition of a good war poem as one that delivers an intense personal reaction to the War. They expect this intensity to be reflected in form and language, and are unimpressed by the poems that express their conviviality through colloquial language and easy ballad-metre. Perhaps also there is a bias in favour of the poem of personal protest or disillusionment, and against a poem like the one I’ve quoted, which shows soldiers responding to losses and horrors by bonding together and affirming their community through music.

A couple of final thoughts:

  1. The most anthologised ‘We’ poem is probably W.W. Gibson’s ‘We ate our breakfast lying on our backs’. Yet this, while a good poem, is something of a fake, or at least a fiction. It was written and published long before Gibson enlisted, and he never saw service abroad. So this is a civilian poet imagining the community that serving poets often preferred not to write about.
  2. Here’s a ‘we’ poem that I’m rather fond of. It’s by George Willis, and its ‘we’ is more inclusive, I think, than the individual it’s supposedly addressed to:
Two Years After

We thought when we sat in the soup, old man, with the curling flames all round,
We thought it we didn’t get scorched or choked or buried or boiled or drowned,
We thought to the end of our days on earth we should live like kings uncrowned.

We thought if we ever came home alive they would fall on our necks half mad,
And turn their hearts for us inside out and load us with all they had;
That nothing would be too good for us, since nothing was then too bad.

We thought, and the thought of it warmed us up, and gave us strength anew,
And carried us on till the task was done; we thought – but it wasn’t true,
For it isn’t much cop down here, old man; how is it up there with you?

7 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted September 5, 2015 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Is “We” more common in songs than poems, perhaps?
    With George Willis’s poem, given that there are three options – the grave, earth or heaven – which are the narrator and the person addressed in?

    • Posted September 5, 2015 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Yes, songs are often more about communal experience.
      I read it that the narrator is in post-war Britain, while the addressee has ‘gone west’ – and is therefore better off.

      • Roger
        Posted September 6, 2015 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        “I read it that the narrator is in post-war Britain, while the addressee has ‘gone west’”

        I thought that myself at first, but it could also be that the narrator is speaking from his grave.

  2. Bill
    Posted September 25, 2015 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    A lot of poems seem to start with “we” before breaking down into individuals. But then that must have been a common experience of war, as the mass of men disintegrates into a lot of individual fights and experiences. Sassoon’s “Counter Attack” and even “The General” start off with “we” before moving to close-ups. Brooke’s sonnets start with “us” before ending with the “If I should die”. Was there perhaps more “we” poetry early in the war than later on?

    And incidentally, George, aren’t you falling into the old trap by suggesting that “Breakfast” is somehow a fake and that the only genuine war poetry could be written by those who saw “action”. Of course, it was a feeling that Gibson seemed to share, hence his own desperate efforts to get into uniform, even if he had to wear it behind a desk.

    I don’t know much about George Willis other than “Any Soldier to his son”. Do you have any biographical details?

    • Posted September 26, 2015 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I have in the past myself used ‘Breakfast’ to argue that personal experience was not necessary in order to write a good war poem.
      But I think that Gibson’s non-military status is an interesting fact about the poem. With his ‘we’ he is imagining himself as a part of the military community – much as Kipling often did.

      Yes, the average canonical war poem moves from the communal to the personal. Perhaps it is because we expect a war poem to be a personal response to the experience that these poems tend to be valued more highly than ‘we’ poems.

      I don’t know much about George Willis.

  3. Bill
    Posted September 27, 2015 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    I think my point is that calling Gibson’s poem “something of a fake” is unfair. The expectation that a war poem would be a personal response to a real experience was surely a creation of the later Great War poets like Sassoon and Owen. (With the possible earlier exception of Whitman’s “Drum-taps”). Previously, I think poets and soldiers had been different people. As you say, Kipling, Housman, Hardy, Newbolt and the rest were writing a form of fiction. That was a tradition within which Gibson was also writing: an empathetic response to an experience formed largely from reading newspaper reports (even the football club in “Breakfast” is invented, not real – or one of them is). The fact he wrote it so early in the war is as interesting as the fact he wasn’t in uniform or in France.

    Incidentally “We are marching back from the battle” seems to be excised from a piece in Patrick MacGill’s “Soldiers Songs”.

  4. Posted September 27, 2015 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bill!

    I was just about to send off an article with the lines attributed to Anon.

    Here’s the whole of MacGill’s poem:

    THE RETURN

    There’s a tramp o’ feet in the mornin’,
    There’s an oath from an N.C.O.,
    As up the road to the trenches
    The brown battalions go :
    Guns and rifles and wagons,
    Transports and horses and men,
    Up with the flush of the dawnin’
    And back with the night again.

    Back again from the battle,
    From the mates we’ve left behind.
    And our ofiicers arc gloomy
    And the N.C.O.’s are kind;
    When a Jew’s harp breaks the silence,
    Purring an old refrain,
    Singing the song of the soldier,
    “Here we are again!”
    Here we are!
    Here we are!
    Oh! here we are again!
    Some have gone west,
    Best of the best,
    Lying out in the rain,
    Stiff as stones in the open.
    Out of the doings for good.
    They’ll never come back to advance or attack;
    But, God I don’t we wish that they could!


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