In these centennial days, evocations of the First World War in newspaper articles or TV and radio programmes can seem to follow familiar and well-worn paths.  But in this week’s Culture Show special on BBC 2, Simon Armitage came up with a commemoration that felt entirely original: his own poetic commentary on the war, using as his inspiration the stories of people whose lives were either ended or profoundly changed by it.  In The Great War: An Elegy, Armitage told seven unusual stories, closing each one with a new poem inspired by it.

Introducing the film, Armitage said:

A century ago this year, the First World War began. The Great War – but great only in its scale of catastrophe. Well over 700,000 British soldiers died in the bloodbath that followed. I don’t have a head for numbers – that statistic is incomprehensible. It’s about human beings – people who lived and breathed just as we do and at the very least our memory of them should be kept alive. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves – I never fail to be affected and moved by their poems, especially those that reflect directly on the horror and brutality and drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud. But a hundred years have passed now and as a poet I feel bound by duty or tradition to take the opportunity to reflect again on the catastrophic loss of life and to think about how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years.

Edie Appleton
The nurse, Edith Appleton

The first story told was that of Edith Appleton, a nurse stationed near Étretat on the Normandy coast. Appleton kept a diary, addressing the entries to her mother, in which she was unsparing in the details of the terrible wounds inflicted on the soldiers she nursed. Interspersed with her brutally honest accounts of men whose minds and bodies have been broken by battle are tiny sketches of Étretat where she used to swim on days off. Armitage Edith’s her story because of that paradox; he said:

What really interested me was not just the journal entries, but the drawings that were in and amongst them – all these really charming . It seemed to me that she was trying to find repose and even bliss only a few miles away from where she was witnessing and dealing with all this terror. That just seemed to me to be an untold story.

Edie Appleton diary
Detail from Edith’s diary

Edith’s diary was published by Dick Robinson, her great nephew, and it was Dick who read the poem, ‘Sea Sketch’, that Armitage had written, inspired by the diary:

Dear Mother, I have come to the sea
to wash my eyes
in its purples, blues, indigos, greens,
to enter its world and emerge cleansed,
to break the surface
then watch the surface heal and mend.
Behind me the land lies mauled and wrenched,
but I have not flinched
from uncommon holes in the flesh of men
or heads oozing with shattered minds,
and have not shied
from livers and lungs exposed to the light,
and have balanced and carried faltering hearts
in my cupped hands
through the egg and spoon race of death and life.
Some men I kissed: boy soldiers
raving and blind,
begging for love from a mother’s lips,
and when death stands with its black shawl
at the foot of the bed
a white cotton handkerchief eases the soul…
So allow me the beach, the sea,
its handwritten waves,
the act of making a simple sketch
of a simple ketch, or stick figures plunging
into the depths,
or a cormorant baring its breast to the sun,
or at dusk, Venus robed in her wedding dress,
her silver train
like a path on the water heading west.

Sketch of Étretat from Edith's diary
Sketch of Étretat from Edith’s diary

Before he enlisted, Arthur George Heath was a Fellow of  New College, Oxford, who lectured in modern philosophy, and was keenly interested in socialism and questions of social reform. He served as a tutor for the Workers Education Association.  He had spent time in Germany, and loved the music of German composers, and that country’s mediaeval towns.  He was shot in the neck and killed on his 28th birthday.

After the war, Arthur’s family published his letters.  Simon Armitage read from one written by Heath to his mother which had made a deep impression on him.  In it, Heath explains why he was not afraid of death:

My dear Mother,

It is Sunday, and though we shall be working all the same in a few hours, I feel that I should like to take the opportunity of telling you some things I’ve wanted to say now for a long time. You remember that I told you when I was going that nothing worried me so much as the thought of the trouble I was causing you by going away, or might cause you if I was killed. Now that death is near I feel the same. I don’t think for myself that I’ve more than the natural instinct of self-preservation, and I certainly do not find the thought of death a great terror that weighs on me. I feel rather that, if I were killed, it would be you and those that love me that would have the real burden to bear, and I am writing this letter to explain why, after all, I do not think it should be regarded as merely a burden. It would, at least, ease my feelings to try and make the explanation.

We make the division between life and death as if it were one of dates – being born at one date
and dying some years after. But just as we sleep half our lives, so when we’re awake, too, we know that often we’re only half alive.

Life, in fact, is a quality rather than a quantity, and there are certain moments of real life whose value seems so great that to measure them by the clock, and find them to have lasted so many hours or minutes, must appear trivial and meaningless. Their power, indeed, is such that we cannot properly tell how long they last, for they can colour all the rest of our lives, and remain a source of strength and joy that you know not to be exhausted, even though you cannot trace exactly how it works.

The first time I ever heard Brahms’ Requiem remains with me as an instance of what I mean. Afterwards you do not look back on such events as mere past things whose position in time can be localised ; you still feel as living the power that first awoke in them. Now if such moments could be preserved, and the rest strained off, none of us could wish for anything better. . . . And just as these moments of joy or elevation may fill our own lives, so, too, they may be prolonged in the experience of our friends, and, exercising their power in those lives, may know a continual resurrection. You won’t mind a personal illustration. I know that one of the ways I live in the truest sense is in the enjoyment of music. Now just as the first hearing of the Requiem was for me more than an event which passed away, so I would like to hope that my love of music might be for those who love and survive me more than a memory of something past, a power rather that can enhance for them the beauty of music itself.  […]

Please forgive me if I have worried you by all this talk. If we loved one another less I could not have written this, and, just because we love one another, I cannot bear to think that, if I died, I should only give you trouble and sorrow. . .

All my love to you,

Arthur

Arthur George Heath
Arthur George Heath

Inspired by Arthur Heath’s story, Simon Armitage wrote ‘Remains’:

The faint of heart
won’t want to trawl
through a mud-bath strewn
with body parts:
an architect’s hand,
a surgeon’s rib,
an explorer’s foot, still laced in its boot,
the flaxen shock of an actor’s hair,
an artist’s eye,
a composer’s ear,
a philosopher’s skull,
a glass-blower’s lungs,
an inventor’s spine,
a poet’s tongue.

A century on
the soil still bleeds,
the earth yields up
its yearly crop
of finger-nails
and lower jaws
and wisdom teeth,
and funny bones,
and Tommy still roams
the fields and lanes
all leaden-limbed,
all hollow-voiced,
all vacant-looking,
all bullet-brained,
all never was,
all might have been.

Amy Beechdale
Amy Beechdale

Perhaps the most heart-breaking story told by Armitage was that of Amy Beechey, a Lincolnshire mother who lost five of her eight sons to the war. At the Imperial War Museum, he read through her sons’ letters and the official notifications that she received of her five sons’ deaths.  For Armitage, it was ‘a sad and upsetting archive’, but said Armitage, ‘the most powerful thing of all is Amy herself, the mother on the receiving end of all these letters, the silent scream, the voice we never hear’.  He continued: ‘Her grief, and how these losses left her, can only be imagined.  In fact they probably can’t be imagined at all’.  Amy lived on Avondale Road, and for Amy he wrote ‘In Avondale’:

That isn’t the way the coal man knocks
Dark earth and blackened hands
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the milkman knocks
Pale earth strewn in foreign lands
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the fish-seller knocks
Gaping mouths and staring eyes
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the egg-man knocks
Cracked shells and broken lives
Who rattles the letter box?

So mother buttons her first son’s coat
In Avondale, in Avondale
And his name comes home in an envelope.

And a mother buttons her second son’s coat
And wraps a muffler around his throat
In Avondale, in Avondale
And his name comes home in an envelope.

And runs a comb through her third son’s fringe
And wipes a crumb from her fourth son’s lips
And presses a note in her fifth son’s fist
In Avondale, in Avondale
And buttons their coats
And their names come home in envelopes.

Some days the wind troubles the hinges and locks
And a sunflower sways and the tree-house rocks
But it’s deadly quiet in Avondale
When somebody knocks.

Who rattles
Who rattles the letter box?

Avondale
Simon Armitage on the doorstep in Avondale Road

Armitage visited Helperthorpe in the Yorkshire Wolds – one of only 52 ‘Thankful Villages’ in England and Wales, villages that didn’t lose a single soul to the fighting during the war. The term ‘thankful village’ was coined in 1936 by the writer Arthur Mee (an evocative name: who in my generation did not at some time read his Children’s Encyclopedia, or Children’s Newspaper?) to describe the handful of communities that didn’t suffer any military fatalities during the war. Instead of memorials in memory of the dead many have plaques giving thanks for the village sons’ salvation.  However, the 52 ‘Thankful Villages’ in England and Wales are an anomaly, dwarfed in number by the 16,000 villages which weren’t so fortunate.

Thankful village: the Helperthorpe Roll of Honour
Thankful village: the Helperthorpe Roll of Honour

Helperthorpe

In Helperthorpe, all 18 men who left for the front returned. The maths of their good fortune is quite exceptional. Around a million British and Commonwealth lives were lost during the First World War. No Scottish community appears to have been left unscathed, and no thankful villages have been identified in Ireland, either, which was still part of the UK during this period.

First World war wagoner
First World war waggoner

Armitage spoke to Ted Atkinson, the grandson of wagonner Arthur Brown, who returned home  to Helperthorpe after his war-time service, bringing horse-drawn provisions to the trenches on the frontline. It was the only time that Arthur ever went abroad.  Arthur was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his bravery when, taking provisions up to the frontline on his wagon with two horses, he came under German shellfire.  One shell landed near him and killed one of his horses. The other had survived, but was in distress.  As the barrage continued, for nearly 45 minutes, Arthur stayed with his horse in full sight of the enemy while shells fall around them, refusing to take shelter in the trench.  He thought the war was ‘futile’, his grandson told Simon, before reading ‘The Thankful’, the poem written for his grandfather by Armitage.

Clyne War Memorial
Clyne War Memorial

Two of Armitage’s poems were responses to objects. One was ‘Memorial’, written after visiting the highly unusual War Memorial at Clyne in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a clock tower paid for by local people to commemorate local men who had given their lives.  Armitage saw the building as combining the enduring symbolism of time (measured out in 15-minute chimes) with an everyday function.

The poppy
The poppy which Joseph Shaddick sent home

The second object was a pressed poppy which soldier Joseph Shaddick sent from the trenches to his family home in Devon.  It now lies, pale and brittle, in the archive of the Imperial War Museum, and was the inspiration for ‘Considering the Poppy’:

Consider the poppy,
think it a life,
the plasma and milk
of its petals and stalk.

Or think it a face,
the agonised blush,
blood vessels flushed
with revulsion, pain.

Think it an eye:
the blood-shot iris
and ink-black pit
staring blank and blind,

or think it a mouth,
muted, stunned,
or think it a flag,
planted there

flying nobody’s colours
in no-man’s land.
Or think it a soul,
fallen, lost,

or think it a hole
the gaping nought
of an entry wound
or exit wound.

Or think it a ghost,
or think it a heart.
But, above all, think it
a thought:

A seed of thought
that might sleep
in the mind
for a hundred years

and sprout
and bud and blossom
and fruit.

A bubble of memory
that blooms
in the rain.
A Rorschach smudge,

A crimson stain
that reminds
and reminds
when it flares and flames

So consider the poppy
pinned on a blouse or pinned on a coat,
or growing wild
among cane or corn.

And recall.
And recall.

Bringing something new to the significance of remembrance at the time of the centennial, Simon Armitage’s haunting film was enhanced by his thoughtful narration and moving poems.  It’s available on iPlayer for another month, but can also be viewed on YouTube:

See also

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16 thoughts on “Simon Armitage’s elegy for the Great War

  1. I saw the programme and like you thought it was very well done as a different view on the war. I did not know about Thankful Villages for example. Thanks for giving us this permanent version of it!

  2. A brilliant documentary film with wonderful poems. Of them all I find Simon Armitage’s ‘In Avondale’ spellbinding. These poems, based on some tragic stories of the Great War, will become modern classics to add to the volume of great war poetry.

  3. Great, kind and respectful program, constructed and presented to allow reflection and contemplation for us that will never know what those days, events and feelings would have been like. Stopped me in my tracks and made me think deep. Well done a great tribute to those now gone and very real reminder of what war always means, the thoughts and feelings it provokes and character and love that shines through. It will always be ‘In Avondale’ that sends the sad sad chill and devastating mundane reality home.. and did indeed to them all gone now.

  4. This was such a poignant tribute and was so moving. The poems and programme were excellent and have stayed in my mind since I watched it. Thank you to all and to Dick for such a moving piece.

  5. I loved the programme. I loved listening to Simon’s voice and seeing the words on the page.What touching stories. Although I respectfully give my 2 minutes of silence every year on Remembrance Day I have never really felt connected with the dead of war. But these poems helped me to meet the real people behind the statistics and the pomp and ceremony of Remembrance Day. Amazing stories of loss,suffering, death, hope and humanity. Have watched the documentary twice. Very moving.

    1. Thanks for reading, Maxine. No – frustratingly, these poems haven’t yet been published in a collection. I’m keeping an eye out for one!

  6. Only just spotted Maxine’s comment and your response, Gerry. There was indeed a publication; see http://www.finepresspoetry.com/considering-the-poppy—simon-armitage.html or google “considering the poppy” for more information. I have a copy which I bought when I read Simon’s poem for my great aunt Edith Appleton – Sea Sketch – at an event at Salt’s Mill last November.

    See also: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4MfZkFyhYf9wSKy3TgHkR3S/poems-for-the-lost-simon-armitage-remembers-ww1.

    Dick

      1. I know – very steep and a shame there aren’t cheaper editions (as far as I can see). But very beautifully made and I guess I just treated myself to this one. I suppose poets have to make a living and now he’s Oxford Poetry Prof I suspect prices will increase even further!

        Love your blogs. Do you ever do talks anywhere?

      2. Of course I don’t mind. Just grateful for the correction. My muddle, I suppose, between Avondale and Beechey.Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. I have just stumbled upon your fine blog, Gerry, while looking for a full transcript of In Avondale as I update my book about the mother who lost five sons. Hope you don’t mind me pointing out that it was Amy Beechey, not Beechdale. A remarkable woman. Boxing Day just passed was the 80th anniversary of her death. It is truly gratifying that the Beechey sacrifice – forgotten for so long – is now immortalised so powerfully in verse by the wonderful Simon Armitage

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