Desktop version

Home arrow Language & Literature

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

SOLDIERS: Dai and Diomedes on the Somme

Table of Contents:


The World War I fatalities lists compiled by the British War Office record the names of somewhat over 41,000 officers and 660,000 British soldiers (Other Ranks).1 One commissioned officer died for every 16 sergeants, corporals and privates. Before mid-1916, clear class divisions separated non-officer and officer ranks. Financial considerations excluded men with no independent income from seeking a commission; it was not possible to live on army pay. But the command style of trench warfare, which depended on junior officers leading platoons on the front lines, produced unprecedented casualty rates amongst young commissioned officers, who were mostly from the upper-middle classes. From the summer of 1916, the army offered commissions to men whose class would previously have debarred them from being considered ‘officer material’.2

A bizarre new term, ‘temporary gentleman’, designated the working-class soldiers who suddenly found themselves with commissions.’ But they now faced great danger as junior officers on the front line. The ratio of working-class men who were killed in proportion to those of higher classes was therefore ultimately higher even than 16 to 1. But when it comes to the ‘War Poets’, the ratio is reversed.

On 11th November 1985, a memorial to the poets of the First World War was unveiled in at Westminster Abbey by Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate. The list contained 16 names: Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. All had fought in the war and all except Robert Graves were by this time dead. Poems by 14 of the 16 were read out at the ceremony. The two who were omitted were Blunden and Jones.4

‘Private David Jones’, reproduced by courtesy of the David Jones Society

FIGURE 24.1 ‘Private David Jones’, reproduced by courtesy of the David Jones Society.

Jones was the only one not of officer class (Figure 24.1). The presence of classical ideas in the understanding of non-officers in the British army is a topic that deserves much further investigation. This chapter provides a starting-point by offering a class-conscious reading of Jones’ harrowing epic In Parenthesis (1937), which forged a radically new form and language for the representation of the common soldier’s subjective experience of the trenches of World War I.5

Private David Jones

By 1985, In Parenthesis had fallen out fashion. It was a product of trauma suffered in a manmade death-trap of barbed wire, vermin, machinegun fire and mud—where imperial nations slaughtered each other’s menfolk as they struggled to secure the peripheral edges of their territorial power, or, as Jones put it in the language of Roman fortifications, to hold ‘their crumbling limites intact’.6 In Parenthesis shares with some other World War I poems the use of classical material, but is otherwise different. It unwaveringly looks at the war from the proletarian perspective of the lowest ranks of soldier, is book-length, collides realistic and supernatural elements, is aesthetically experimental and linguistically obscene. It implicitly questions the legitimacy of writing poetry about war, yet dispassionately withholds both a coherent critique of militarism or a partisan political view.

It is also graphic about violence. Jones, whose In Parenthesis doppelganger is Private Ball, was injured in action:

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker below belowbelow.

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.7

Jones was never strong. There is even humour underlying his perception of the force which took him down as disproportionate ‘considering the fragility of us’. Jones also watched several close friends die.

The son of a Welsh-speaking printer, Jones’ lower-middle-class family lived in suburban London. He attended state school. He was backward academically and struggled to read; his sister read Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome aloud to him.8 At 13, in 1909, he enrolled at the Camberwell School of Art. He enlisted in the 15th battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (the ‘London Welsh’) on 2nd January 1915. He was newly 19 and had previously been rejected by the army twice. Jones’ father wrote to David Lloyd George; soon the inarticulate teenaged art student was being trained at Llandudno.9 The whole 38th (Welsh) Division embarked at Southampton in December 1915, trained for a fortnight at Warne, before moving to the front line at Neuve Chapelle. The battalion moved south in preparation for the Somme offensive ofjuly 1916, when Jones, like his poetic doublet John Ball, was shot in the attack on Mametz Wood.10

This engagement was brutal, with prolonged machine gun fire and bayonet fighting at close quarters. Jones’ division suffered a staggering 4,000 casualties. Robert Graves also fought in the battle, remembering the site as ‘full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken’.11 Graves’ poem on Mametz Wood, ‘A dead Boche’ (written in 1916), is conventional in form, yet conveys the same physical disgust as Jones’ much later work.12

By late October 1916 Jones had returned to the front, seeing action again in 1917 in the north-west ofYpres. A new bond had developed between the frontline fighters on both sides. All enmity was directed towards officers and politicians; the dedication to In Parenthesis honours ‘the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure’.13 Jones had no interest in institutional politics. But the poem’s focalised viewpoints and subject-matter relate to the experience of the ordinary soldier, making In Parenthesis inescapably political with a small ‘p’. Hirst has defined the distinction between Jones and the officers Owen and Sassoon as lying in the common soldier’s pride in his gun and his regiment.14 Cohen argues thatjones ‘forces the reader to protest rather than doing it for him’, in a manner ‘unlike any other World War I poet’.15 He held only generals and statesmen accountable, men whom he despised: ‘Damn them all, all who rule and all who counsel’, he was to write later in The Dying Gaul.'b

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics