the futility of world war one birdsong

The portrayal of war in WW1 literature demonstrates a transition between glorification and futility. Through a detailed discussion of Birdsong, a selection of War Poetry and reference to Journey’s End, explore this portrayal.

The people of 21st century Britain are very much aware that World War One was a bloodbath in which the lives of an entire generation of young men were wasted. Their sacrifice, however only succeeded in forming the foundations for another brutal conflict 20 years later. World War One now symbolises the horror of human nature and the futility of war. However, these modern views bear only a passing resemblance to the experiences and beliefs of the time. Before, during and after the conflict, poets and authors created a wide range of literature, portraying the war as both heroic and horrific. Jessie Pope’s poems such as “The Call” and “Who’s For The Game?” are examples of patriotism to the extent of completely trivialising war. They were a form of propaganda used to entice naïve young soldiers, who were excited by the prospects of entering this big “game” with all their friends.

In the poem ‘The Call’ Jessie Pope uses a multitude of techniques to make the reader feel obligated to sign up. Even in the title, the use of “the”, suggests there will be no other call. “My laddie” illustrates Pope’s intended friendship with the reader as well as portraying a sense of sportsmanship. The direct mode of address makes the poem seem more personal, as if it is written just for you. The poem is extremely simplistic, using repetition and rhyming couplets, which means that it is accessible to everyone, and does not require any deeper thinking. She uses a lot of contrasts, such as juxtaposing “that procession comes/ Banners and rolling drums” with “who’ll stand and bite his thumbs”. Here she is representing the soldiers as heroes, who will be worshipped when they return home, and suggests that the solitary figure biting his thumbs is a shameful coward.

This representation of war as courageous and noble reflected the wars of the past; however WW1 was going to prove much different to previous battles. The smart uniforms were replaced with camouflage, horses gave way to tanks and new weaponry such as machine guns and gas meant that there could be killing on a mass scale. In the thick of the war emerged “trench poets”, who completely opposed the propaganda being created to entice soldiers. These poets all experienced the war first-hand and wrote their poetry whilst in the trenches, meaning their literature was far more informed. They belonged to what Ernest Hemingway called “the lost generation”, the generation that came of age during World War I, and their accounts of the ‘Great War’ exposed its futility and the vast number of lives wasted.

Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et decorum est after reading Jessie Pope’s War Poems. Part of the poem is directly addressed to Jessie Pope saying, had she ever seen the chaos of the trenches: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.” The lie translates “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country”. In stanza one, Owen uses similes such as “Bent double, like old beggars,” and “coughing like hags,” to show the soldiers’ poor health and exhaustion. This is entirely different to the government-projected stereotype of a soldier, in gleaming boots and a crisp new uniform, but is the true illustration of the poor mental and physical state of the soldiers. In the second stanza, the poem becomes more fast-paced, as if the soldiers were flung out of a daze. He begins by writing “gas, GAS!” which instantly grabs the reader’s attention, and by writing it first in lower case and then again in capitals, he gives us an impression of the rising alarm in the soldiers. Owen uses the expression “an ecstasy of fumbling,” to describe the soldiers trying desperately to put on their gas masks, the word “ecstasy” being used to give the impression of the complete, all-consuming panic which the soldiers feel when they notice the gas shells. This is effective because it is a complete contrast to the image of the soldiers before the shell, at first they were “drunk with fatigue,” but are suddenly forced into an “ecstasy of fumbling,” by the falling of the gas shell. Owen then describes one of the platoon who was not quick enough in fitting his mask. The dying man is said to be “drowning.” By the use of this word Owen paints the image of a man not only being deprived of air, but also drowning in his own bodily fluids.

The first time the audience are introduced to Tipper in Birdsong, his desperate reactions to shell fire strongly reflect the soldier from Dulce et
decorum est. “No red tracery of blood vessels; there was only a brown circle with a dilated pupil floating in an area of white which was enlarged by the spasmodic opening of the eye.” This long sentence without pauses reveals an intense feeling of fear. The highlighting of the pupil symbolises the feeling of loneliness in the soldier, describing it as “floating” which gives an impression that it doesn’t really belong anywhere. The lack of red represents Tipper as un-human; his body no longer possesses the little red marks which everybody’s eyes contain. Faulks’s choice of the word “tracery” could be symbolic of the tracers used during the First World War that lit up the sky with lines of light, indicating targets for the soldiers. Stephen’s response to the outburst “This eruption of natural fear brought home how unnatural was the existence they were leading” highlights the grotesque nature of the war, the idea that man should not experience such horrors. Throughout the book Faulks’s word choice is vital in portraying trench life. He uses alliteration to bring the sounds of War to life. “Sentries, startled from slumber at the first sound.” This use of sibilance echoes the sounds of hissing gas which is quickly overpowered by, “beer glass to the lamp, looking at the big gilt mirror behind the bar. The bright reflection made him blink and the flickering of his eyes brought back the clay wall”. The continual use of the letter ‘b’ sounds strikingly like the staccato of machine guns during the war. Lexical choice is brought in with “Flickering”, which further conveys the imagery of firing bullets and shells illuminating the sky above no man’s land.

Alongside Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke is considered one of the most famous “war poets” of World War One, however it would be more appropriate to refer to him as a pre-war poet. Brooke’s war experience consisted of one day of limited military action and he later died of a mosquito bite, entirely unrelated to war. Consequently, his poetry very much romanticises death. His poem The Soldier is still read at war memoraials in the present day. The poem addresses the reader, speaking to them in the imperative: “think only this of me.” This impression of closeness establishes Brooke’s romantic attitude towards death in duty as he is suggesting that the reader should not mourn him. Whichever “corner of foreign field” becomes his grave will also become “forever England”. The suggestion that English “dust” is “richer” represents people’s strong attitudes of patriotism and belief in their country. It also shows the positivity of becoming part of the foreign field, as this place has become an extended part of Britain. The writing of this poem, although more complex and thought-through is no different in retrospect that that of Jessie Pope. Any young man who had not yet enlisted would read this poetry and feel a mixture of guilt and patriotism, leading to them eventually signing up.

Faulkes recognises these attitudes in his novel Birdsong, and there is clear reference/influence towards the end. “They don’t want to be left beneath this foreign field. They must go back to the places they loved and died for. Don’t you love your country” Demonstrates that people still have these attitudes at the end of the war. They are not glorifying death, but they are glorifying dying for one’s country. It is a love of the country that led people to fight, that made them carry on. The quote is interestingly from a German soldier, Levi, and this shows that the attitudes of both British and German soliders were most likely similar.

Often in glorification literature the German soldiers are quite often represented as “the baddies” and the term “Boche” is used to dehumanise them, and make them into one big enemy. The fallen enemy in Robert Graves’s poem ‘A Dead Boche’ (1917) has no face, no name, no heroic attribute, not even any human attributes any more. The illusion of the hero’s blood and fame gradually yields to a real vision of ugly black blood dribbling out of a clump of flesh. This soldier could be anybody, British, French, German. The homed in features, although simplistic, give a sense of a person. “Spectacled” and “crop-haired” show that this person has once taken the time to have an eye test and a haircut. These tasks are so mundane and normal, things that everybody does and this breaks down the distance between the enemy. The man lying there dead is no different to your brother or friend back home. Futility of death is highlighted by this fact.

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