News from the Front is a blog written and curated by A. Irene Mangoutas. It deals primarily with personal stories, notable events, literature, film, and trivia from and about the First World War, with a particular interest in peace initiatives and acts of memorialization and commemoration. The blog will, on occasion, deal with other Fronts: the peace front; the women’s front; the front lines of other military conflicts, past and present; and the Home Front(s), both historical and contemporary.
A recurring image in poetry from and about the First World War is that of the English soldier as Christ figure. Written in December 1915, Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Redeemer”—his first poem written on the Western Front—visualizes this soldier-Christ figure:
I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.
No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure. (10-27)
I read somewhere—and, with the amount that I read regarding the First World War, my memory fails me as to where—that when journalists interviewed soldiers on the Front, asking them why, and for what, they were fighting, they invariably did not respond with such high abstractions as God, King, and Country; rather, they responded with the name of their hometown or village, or of the dance hall or cricket field of this same town—with Lancaster on Lune, in other words, and the simple, homely pleasures that it had afforded in peacetime.
It is with Sassoon’s poem in mind that I first approached Crucifix Corner, south of High Wood on the Somme. As Alan Jennings, curator of the World War One Battlefields website, notes, “Crucifix Corner was the name given to several road or track junctions on the Western Front where there was a wayside crucifix, of the type that were and still are a common sight across France. However, at the Crucifix Corner south of High Wood, the original crucifix can still be seen today—complete with holes and scars from damage sustained during the war.” Standing by the crucifix, I could not help but remember Sassoon’s image of the Christ-soldier, revised, in the figure of this scarred and shelled Christ: not “white and strong,” but covered in shell-holes, and standing as a monument to the perpetual folly of mankind. If, in Christian cosmology, Christ died for our sins, this symbol of His perpetual death on the cross is both fitting and tragic, standing guard over one of the battlefields of one of the bloodiest battles in a War characterized by its senseless loss of life: the Battle of the Somme, beginning at 7:28 AM on 1 July 1916, and coming to an end, nearly five months later, on 18 November 1916, with a casualty list of one million dead and wounded.
Great War historian Jay Winter describes the Somme as “that vast bloodletting … which the German writer Ernst Junger termed the birthplace of the twentieth century” (The Legacy of the Great War). If Junger is right, and our modern civilization was born on the battlefields surrounding Crucifix Corner, the symbol of the shelled Christ watching over such an terrible and bloody birth becomes scarier still, and the crucifix stands as a ravaged memorial for the fallen: the fallen men, and the fallen ideals of “beauty and love [and] … its progress to perfection” (Gibbs qtd. in Fussell The Great War and Modern Memory 8).
Crucifix Corner stands as a fitting memorial to the Great War, and to the failure of ideology. As two predominantly Christian nations faced one another under the watchful gaze of their God, whose bronze body did not escape the bullets of His children, another poet would compose, three years after the Battle of the Somme, a very different poem of Christian revelation:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(Yeats “The Second Coming” 9-22)
Irene Mangoutas is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Her dissertation, titled ‘Après la guerre’: Alternate Spaces of the Great War in Modernist and Contemporary Memory-Texts, addresses nostalgia, memory, and commemorative practices in interwar and contemporary British fiction and film about the First World War. She also specializes in neo-Victorian literature, film, visual art, and culture; the ‘long nineteenth-century’; the intersection(s) between warfare and fantasy; and children’s literature. Her departmental page is available here, and you can follow her on twitter @irenemangoutas.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.
Jennings, Alan. “High Wood.” World War One Battlefields, http://www.ww1battlefields.co.uk/somme/high_wood.html. Accessed 16 June 2017.
Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Redeemer.” 1915. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43168. Accessed 16 June 2017.
Winter, Jay, ed. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2009.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” 1919. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43290. Accessed 16 June 2017.