Sunday, 11 November 2007

Lest we forget: poetry and prose.

'Lest we forget' is the final line of the poem, For the Fallen (1914), by Laurence Binyan. Today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War when the 'Ode of Remembrance' – a favourite recitation at memorial services for the fallen of the 1st and 2nd World Wars throughout the Commonwealth - finishes with these words.

The 'war' poetry of the Great War in particular often expresses deeply felt emotions very poignantly (see my blog archive, Flanders Fields, 29 July) but prose of the period can do the same. There are many memoirs and novels by men who served in this war that recount the politics, battles and tragedies of it all and their memories of fallen comrades, lost brothers, dead sons are so very moving.

But for every young man that died there was a woman – whether mother, sister, daughter or lover - who suffered years of loss. Not that it was only young men that served in the 1914-18 war: women didn't fight but they did do everything but. Many took over the jobs of the men who had left to fight and it's well known that their contribution – not to mention skill, dedication and bravery - during the war finally (in 1928) scotched the arguments against womens' suffrage.

Many women wanted to be in the thick of it, so to speak: some joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) either doing all sorts of 'manly' jobs or nursing - often risking their lives in on the front line. Others became members of the Women's Auxillary Corps (WAR), engaged on military services at home and abroad.

I make mention of two of these women who subsequently became journalists and writers: both gave up their hard won places at Oxford University to serve their country in time of war. They later met whilst studying there and became firm friends. Winifred Holtby served in France in 1918 as a volunteer in the Signal Unit of the WAR and Vera Brittain became a VAD, nursing in London and then in a field hospital at the front line in France.

Vera Brittain fell in love with Roland (a friend of her brother's) who was unfortunately killed in 1915. Sadly, her beloved younger brother, Edward, was then also killed (in 1918): many of their friends also met their death in the Great War. The first part of Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933), chronicled those years: the story of 'the lost generation' and the changes it brought about in the lives of so many turned Brittain into a pacifist and an active member of the peace movement.

Some of the material that Brittain drew on when writing her autobiography was eventually published in 1998: Letters from a Lost Generation was a collection of the letters of Brittain, her brother and their friends, Richardson and Thurlow. These are a moving personal record of the terrible effects and results of a war that destroyed so many lives.

Winifred Holtby was also a committed pacifist and feminist; unfortunately she too died tragically young in 1935, just managing to complete her best known novel, South Riding, before she did so. It won her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (posthumously) in 1936. This is a novel that encapsulates life in rural Yorkshire in the years between the two world wars: it gives telescopic view – looking through the wrong end of the lens to what life was like before 1914 and through the other end to the 1920's when women were making a mark as never before.

Both Holtby and Brittain were women of their time: university graduates, journalists and writers in what was then very much a man's world. They were increasingly confident that their views should count and that there was a need to change politics for the better. After Holtby died Brittain wrote Testament of Friendship (1940), a tribute to her friend and a chronicle of their relationship.

I came across both these writers again whilst researching my novel, A Little Blue Jacket. Holtby lived in South Africa in 1926 for a while and championed, among other things, the unionization of black workers: Brittain describes this South African experience as a watershed in Holtby's life. Her own interest in politics and womens' rights was influenced by reading Women and Labour, by the South African novelist and feminist, Olive Schreiner.

The writing of both Holtby and Brittain are still in print and are even enjoying a renewed interest: it's not just the many thousands of men who died that we remember today but also the thousands of women who served their country. And some who wrote about it, lest we forget.


Book Note: I find the poems of AE Houseman particularly moving and here is a simple, understated one that sums up what so many bereaved women must have felt, and sadly, are still experiencing in our war torn world today when no body is repatriated.

The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.

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