Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Visions of the Dead in World War I Poetry
By Laura Moore
GLS Symposium, 23 June, 2012
One facet of the poetry emerging from English soldiers at the Western Front is the presence of ghost soldiers: the dead surround soldiers, speak to them, and inhabit a hellish afterlife that resembles the conditions of the front. Some poets even project themselves as dead and imagine their own future words and encounters. In this presentation I would first like to explain the conditions unique to the Western Front that account for these ghostly imaginings. Then I will show the ways soldiers expressed their experience with death and the dead through poetic imagination.
One factor new to World War I that defined soldiers’ experience and, I believe, accounts for their new ways of portraying the dead in poetry, was long-term mechanized trench warfare. Because advancements in weaponry meant either side could suffer as many as 20,000 casualties in one day, the number of dead bodies reached stunning proportions. On the first day of the Somme offensive, over 19,400 British soldiers were killed. Over the next five months, the British lost an additional 400,000 men; for every one mile gained during the offensive, nearly 88,000 Allied soldiers were killed. 1 At the Battle of Passchendaele, the bodies of almost 35,000 British soldiers were never even found and identified. With such vast numbers of dead, there was not enough manpower to remove and bury the corpses, and in many cases enemy fire and muddy conditions made such efforts impossible. So the dead stayed where they fell, and the living fought and lived among them.
Scientific advancements in weaponry changed not only the scale of destruction but also the style of destruction. The lightweight guns from the Napoleonic war were joined and then replaced by larger, more powerful howitzers and mortars that could fire 25 high-explosive shells in a minute. Once assembled, though, these guns were difficult to move. Similarly, the Maxim guns (early machine guns) that were capable of firing 600 rounds a minute in 1914, and almost double that by 1918, required three or four men to operate. Even the more portable machine guns developed toward the end of the war weighed twenty to thirty pounds and were more effective as defensive weapons. Essentially, both the artillery siege weapons and individual attack weapons were effectively defensive, rather than offensive. Fighting with defensive weapons resulted in a stalemate. Unfortunately, the tactics on either side did little to address this problem, so both the weaponry of World War I and the tactics seemed designed to prolong the agony of the trenches indefinitely. This profoundly affected soldiers, who came to feel they would be stuck in the trenches forever. The poet and critic Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) confessed that “One of the first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end of it.”2 The static nature of trench warfare meant the soldiers engaged in very little forward movement; going over the top was deadly, chaotic, and frequently unsuccessful at advancing their position. A war of attrition meant the men were trapped, literally, in a condition of seemingly pointless misery.
Connection Among Soldiers
This misery helped to strength the connection formed among soldiers. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel points out that “even if those at home had wanted to know the realities of the war, they couldn’t have without experiencing them: its conditions were too novel, its industrialized ghastliness too unprecedented. The war would have been simply unbelievable.”3 So distanced did the soldiers become from the home front, it was as if “civilians talked a foreign language.”4 The sense of alienation from the home front served to strengthen the connections among soldiers.
Interestingly, this profound sense of connection seems to have extended to the fallen as well. Living among so many corpses affected soldiers’ relationship with the dead, for their presence was a constant reminder both of the fallen comrades themselves and of the likelihood of the soldiers’ own deaths. In letters home, the poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) talked of the terrible proximity of “The dead, whose unburied bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth.”5 The physical proximity created an emotional association: because it was impossible for soldiers to place the dead in a grave and out of sight, the spirits of the dead invaded the conscious and subconscious minds of the living.
Hallucinations of Dead
It was not uncommon for soldiers to have hallucinations of dead comrades or enemies. This was especially true of shell shock victims, but also not unheard of in soldiers who didn’t suffer from shell shock. After the war, the poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) confessed to his friend Robert Graves (1895-1985) that often “when he went for a walk he saw corpses lying about on the pavements.”6 The dead that appeared in uninvited hallucinations also manifested themselves in poetic imagination. In other words, soldiers conjured them up intentionally in their poetry. Graves, too, felt haunted by his “old friends” slain in the war. In his poem “Haunted,” published in 1919, he writes of his friends who “stamp and sing/And lay ghost hands on everything.”7 He can accept being haunted in the darkness, but wishes in this poem that his dead comrades would “leave the noon day’s warm sunshine/To living lads,” for “Strangers assume your phantom faces” and Graves is “ashamed to greet/Dead men” in his daytime wanderings. In this poem he indicates both the pervasiveness of his ghostly remembrances as well as his shame of being unable to exorcise them. Though hallucinations of dead comrades or slain enemies were common, what’s interesting here is the different manifestation of the same emotional haunting. In addition to his dead friends’ appearing as independent visions, they also commandeer the faces of strangers; Graves’ association with the dead is strong enough that his mind superimposes them onto the living.
Reaction of Indifference
Many other poets imagined the ghosts of fallen soldiers and addressed their presence in various ways. Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915), killed at the Battle of Loos, anticipates the continued company of the dead and attributed to them a sort of blind indifference to the living. He counsels the reader “When you see millions of the mouthless dead/Across your dreams in pale battalions go,”8 that you, the haunted living, should not offer recognition or praise to the dead soldiers, only acceptance of their fate. For him, the dead are not of the heroic Homeric strain; rather, they are an “o’ercrowded mass” of ghosts impossible to tell apart. This suggests the poet’s acceptance of the vast casualties and his rather prescient anticipation of “millions” more to come.
More often, however, poetic treatments of the dead included imagined dialogue. In part, this poetry granted to the slain a dignity and a voice that the war denied them. Robert Nichols (1893-1944), who also fought in the Battle of Loos, suffered shell-shock after a few weeks in the trenches in 1916. In his poem “Battle,” he imagines an encounter with a dead soldier who asks him to relay a message. Nichols describes feeling “the oozed breath of the slain”9 blowing on his face and hearing the dead man’s final words:
Go home, go home, go to my house,
Knock at the door, knock hard, arouse
My wife and the children…
Say: the dead won’t come back to this house.
The “mourning voices” of the dead complains of the shrapnel that killed him, of the cold and the rain and laments, “I shan’t go home again.” Through this dialogue Nichols gives the soldier an identity and a personal context. Possibly for Nichols, portraying the dead soldier’s concern for his family was a small way to counter the impersonality of mass carnage.
A lesser-known Australian poet, Harley Matthews (1889-1968), echoes the same theme in “The Sleep of Death,”10 in which he imagines a dead comrade, totally unchanged, looking at him in the gloom. While the poet watches the ghost, “he sat and told/Me of his love just as of old” and asks the poet to give her a locket. In these types of poems the writers respond to the continued presence of the dead around them not through expressions of disgust, but through expressions of shared humanity – in these cases, concern for loved ones left behind. The shared experience of warfare and the close association it created among brothers in arms enabled these poets to transform horror into connection.
Imagining Themselves as Dead
Continued proximity to the dead and the arbitrary nature of death combined to prevent a lot of philosophical distance. The dead were not necessarily dead because of their action or inaction, their skill or their effort. Soldiers recognized that they, themselves, could have been the dead – that they might be next. Wilfred Owen blurs the distinction between the dead and the living in “Exposure,” based on an experience he and his comrades had in the snow in early 1917. In the freezing cold, tortured by “the merciless iced east winds that knive”11 them, the poet begins to imagine he looks “deep into grassier ditches” that are “littered with blossoms,” but with a shock asks himself if he is dying. He and his comrades might already be dead; possibly the pastoral homes he is dreaming of or the Romantic visions of imaginary trenches are actually dangerous hallucinations that presage freezing to death. At the end of the poem, though, “nothing happens” – the men are trapped permanently in a no man’s land between life and death, where the transition between those two states is indistinct.
In “Strange Meeting,”12 Owen more clearly imagines himself as dead, escaping battle “down some profound dull tunnel” to a primordial realm “scooped” by ancient, “titanic” wars. There he meets someone who looks at him with “piteous recognition,” and suddenly the speaker “knew we stood in Hell.” This stranger mourns the lost years, the “pity of war” and the realization that “None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.” The power of the poem’s imaginative vision comes at the end, as the stranger reveals he is “the enemy you killed, my friend.” Both the dead self and his doppelganger, the stranger, emerge from Owens’s vision of unity. He imbues the dead German with courage and humanity, showing a degree of empathy and brotherhood that transcends nationalities as well as life and death. In Owens’s empathetic imagining, the distinction between living and dead, friend and foe, English and German, is erased.
Imagining Themselves in Hell
Most poetic treatments of the dead, however, are neither as conciliatory nor as optimistic. Close physical association and philosophical identification with the dead made poets imagine the fallen soldiers to be in circumstances as remarkably depressing as their own; after all, the landscape of the front resembled descriptions of hell that educated soldiers had read from Dante and Milton. The landscape of the front was so unrelentingly bleak and the soldiers’ time there so apparently unending that their vision of the front and their idea of Hell became intertwined. If live soldiers and dead soldiers were trapped alike in a hell on earth, it seems reasonable that souls of the dead would be trapped in the same kind of afterlife. In “Ghost of the Somme,”13 Albert E. Tomlinson (1892-1968) explores the merging of the trenches with Hell. He sees a “khaki phantom” moving down his trench and wonders if it is “a fiend from Hell/Come to join the Hell already there.” This ghost is neither friend nor foe, but rather a representation of the common fate of soldiers trapped in an afterlife that reflects “That Hell where trenches run like trains/Under a hail of red-hot steel” he and the other soldiers are forced to inhabit.
In “Counter-Attack” Sassoon describes with ghastly detail the trenches as “rotten with dead” and talks of the bursting shells “spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell.”14 War itself is a malignant Devil, hurling five-nines and spitting bullets in order to push soldiers into his hellish domain forever. In “Strange Hells,” Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) echoes the idea of artillery as an instrument of hell when he describes, “Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering/Hell’s thunders.”15 The tortured landscape and torturous environment of the front make associations with hell inescapable; by extension, soldiers doomed to inhabit the front either living or dead must be in hell. The traditional ideas of death as a final rest, as peace, as heaven, or as eternal life have been replaced by the seemingly unending reality of the front.
For some, the Christian faith most English soldiers grew up with merged with other systems of belief. In the “Ballad of the Three Spectres,” Ivor Gurney portrays three phantoms speculating about his fate.16 They are not the ghosts of dead comrades, but rather a thematic representation of folklore – perhaps an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s three witches or the three avenging Erinyes of Greek mythology. Siegfried Sassoon similarly draws on alternate, mythological sources in his “Prelude: The Troops.” His conception of dead soldiers is from a Germanic rather than a classical tradition. Here the battalions of dead, “scarred from hell,”17 will pass “through some mooned Valhalla.” In Sassoon’s vision, hell is in the “smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,/And foundered trench lines.” The hell of the trenches has merged with the hell of the damned from several traditions, and the dead wander from one to another. It is as though the powers of hell have commandeered the battlefield.
While all wars seem to be fraught with paradoxes and ironies, one interesting irony of World War I is that the greatest barrier between people – death – at times became blurred in poetic imaginings. The magnitude and pervasiveness of death in the first mechanized war served to undermine its power of distinction. The more the men were exposed to the horrors of death, the less distinct the separation between life and death became, and, by extension, the separation between the living and the dead became less distinct as well. The various poetic renderings of the dead speaks both to the sense of unity soldiers felt with one another, and to the difficulty of processing the devastation of that war within a traditional construct.
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