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:
- 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.
- 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?