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Tag: World War I


For much of my life World War I has hung  in the dim past; a brown and white strip of celluloid showing huge, cumbersome guns, and soldiers marching through mud, sometimes at a pace speeded up by old movie film. People in my immediate family didn’t talk about it much, although my grandfather was there, a captain, awarded an MC, with an experience rather similar to George Sherston, aka Siegfried Sassoon ( The war was too long ago to be spoken of in detail, although my mother (still alive today) was born at the end of it. There are photos of Grandad sitting in his neat, military uniform. And I realise now that some of his habits and expressions come from that time: ‘on the word one, quick march’, he would say as we set off on a walk together.

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I came to see that war a little differently when, more than 30 years after his death, I came across letters Grandad had written from the trenches. He was ‘verminous’. He asked a friend to send some warm socks (as though he were on holiday). As an officer, I regret to say, he sometimes seemed to approach the war as a kind of rugby match – one side had to win. That’s what he said to friends and family, but maybe talking like that was the only way he could cope.

No war historian, I started to think about World War I as the beginning of modern warfare. There were still battlefields, as there were at Waterloo or Trafalgar, or even the Wars of the Roses, but the enemy (and presumably the allies) did unsportsmanly things, like throwing bombs at the other side’s latrines. There were planes; fragile bird-like things, but they could bomb cities and kill civilians.

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Fighting was no longer confined to a battlefield. Horrific numbers of soldiers were killed. My English teacher’s fiancé was killed in World War I – and this was typical. There were so many unmarried women of that generation because, due to the casualties, there was a disproportionate number of women left in the world. In spite of the ministrations of devoted nurses – many miles away from home for the first time in their lives – young men died terrible, often lonely deaths, without pain killers and without drugs to stop infection.

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Young men from Australia and New Zealand went off to see the world ‘for free’, and they’d be home by Christmas. To volunteer was noble, doing your bit for your country. But these callow youths were soon squelching around in putrid trenches and standing next to friends whose guts were ripped out by grenades. They weren’t home for Christmas.

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‘Lest we forget’ … But will we? Technological developments of the time created not only horrific weapons of destruction, but the camera. Soldiers had their own box brownies and could snap scenes to remind us of the pitiless horror they experienced. Because of these amateur snapshots we know far more of the detail of what fighting that war was like than we do about, say, the Battle of Waterloo or even the American Civil War. The ‘war to end all wars’ certainly didn’t achieve that objective. Was anything learned as a consequence of that war? The world today is certainly not a more peaceful place.

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One way of helping us to experience what that war was like, so long ago, is the excellent ‘The Great War Exhibition’ that I visited while I was in Wellington, New Zealand. There are displays of all kinds of weapons, recreations of a recruiting office, a double-decker London bus like the 900 that were used as ambulances and to transport troops, and a shorthorn reconnaissance aircraft with its original engine hangs above us.

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There were two things in this exhibition that were outstanding. The first was a ‘Trench Experience’, where a group of no more than 6 at a time was taken on a guided tour of a trench, reconstructed to resemble Quinn’s Post trench at Gallipoli. Although it wasn’t damp, most other features were present: the noise, the narrow walls, uneven surface, and an attempt to recreate the smells (although I thought perhaps they had been toned down a bit). We were led through these winding passages and at each turn we would come across a soldier or group of soldiers acting as they would have – eating (cans of fly-infested bully beef), cleaning their weapons, preparing for attack … and then, near the end, there was an attack.

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These very realistic three-dimensional scenes were created by up-to-date digital film and a technique called Pepper’s Ghost, which uses foil to give an illusion of ghostliness. The soldiers spoke directly to us, and when the final attack came, they had ‘arranged for our evacuation’. Some members of the group I was with found the experience quite claustrophobic – and we were only in there for about 15 minutes!

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The other feature of the exhibition that I found quite exceptional were the photographs – so many, all taken by soldiers at the time, mainly with their box brownie cameras, bought on the way, in Egypt. Sir Peter Jackson (famous for his direction of Lord of the Rings) had the photos painstakingly digitally colourised by his team at Weta Digital. As he says, the troops saw the war in colour.

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Sir Peter Jackson at the exhibition

There were also displays of descriptions written by soldiers at the time – mainly taken from letters. I noticed a tendency for those in higher ranks to focus on the successful outcomes, it was those in the lower ranks who wrote of the vermin, the pain and the hunger. World War I is no longer a drab, crackling old movie for me.

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11th November 2018 will be the centenary of the end of the terrible war that didn’t end all wars. There will be all kinds of commemorations. My writing group, Elwood Writers, ( has been asked to present a program for the Vision Australia Radio program Cover to Cover. We will be reading pieces we have written; fiction, poetry and memoir. The program goes to air on Friday at 8 pm (AEST) and on Sunday at 1.30 pm (AEST). Locally the station is found at 1179AM, also on VAR digital (

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Pat Barker on World War I

Pat Barker is a British writer whose trilogy of novels examines World War I. The first book in the trilogy, Regeneration, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and chosen by The New York Times as one of the four best novels of 1992. The second book, The Eye in the Door, won The Guardian Fiction Prize and the third book, The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize.

Regeneration is a masterful blending of fiction and non fiction. It is set mainly in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where soldiers were sent to recover from the effects of nerve gas and other psychological traumas resulting from ‘shell shock’. The characters are based on actual people. The book starts when the poet Siegfried Sassoon published his declaration in July 1917, stating his belief that the war was being prolonged deliberately as a weapon of aggression and conquest, rather than the original intent (or that which the fighting soldiers understood) as a means of defence and liberation. We are taken into the hospital and get some insight into the horrors of the mental illnesses that beset these soldiers – some idea of what they had witnessed and lived with in the trenches. Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the progressive Dr Rivers who, unusual for the time, empathises with his patients. Around him, treatments almost as horrific as the war experience are practised, particularly  by Dr Yealland who locked his patients in a room for hours and subjected them to high voltage electric ‘therapy’. Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen and advises him on some of his poetry – they discuss Anthem for Doomed Youth – and, although it is not covered in this story, Owen was ‘doomed’ and killed just before the end of the war. The book has been researched thoroughly – at the end, reference is made to papers written by Rivers and (separately) Yealland, whose methods seem to be a nineteenth century view imposed upon early twentieth century equipment. Once more, the utter horror of that war lives on.


W.H. Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital

The Eye in the Door is the second part of the trilogy. Again, the empathic psychiatrist W. Rivers is central, but in this book he is a little less centre stage. And again, most of the characters are based on real people. Fiction enables Barker to make these people more alive than they might have been in an accurate historical account. We can get closer to them – we can know what they are thinking and we can almost live their horrific experiences of being at the front: holding an eye that had belonged to an injured companion, shooting a dearly-loved comrade because there was no way he could be pulled out of treacherous mud. One main interest in this book is the fugue state, whereby a sufferer has long periods of amnesia during which, it seems to others, he is quite lucid. A second interest is the contemporary campaign against homosexual men – ‘sodomites’. It’s all terribly early 20th century British, which is a great strength, and we see some of the life of the working class, often not documented in the literature about that time.

The novel takes place during 1918 and finishes before the war ends. Indeed, Britain is in a bad way. The main character is Billy Prior, who works in Intelligence and suffers from fugue states. Rivers is his doctor – and we see how Rivers respects Prior’s intellect and is deeply interested in Prior the person, as he is in his other patients, notably Siegfried Sassoon. Rivers himself seems to be torn between pacifism and patriotism – he is ‘curing’ these men so that they can go back to the manslaughter of the front. Rivers suggests that a state where a person has dual personalities is quite natural – the face put on to carry out duty versus the compassionate human being.

The eye in the door is, literally, an eye on a prison door, which Prior sees when he visits an inmate. That probing eye watches even when the prisoner defecates. And, for me, the ‘eye’ was more generally applicable, suggesting constant scrutiny of clandestine activities.

One character who makes a brief appearance is Winston Churchill. I did feel that Pat Barker must have come across this information and enjoyed finding a way to use it. Churchill, with Edward Marsh (a poet and civil servant known to ‘have sympathies’ with the homosexual community) spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with plaited birch. Hmm – was Churchill gay?

This book shows graphically the horror of World War I. No matter how much one reads, how many pictures one sees, it was a hideous and brutal experience that is almost beyond imagination. The Eye in the Door, through fiction, manages to tell us things that maybe the participants, in that still rather laced up British society, might not have dared to say.

I look forward to reading The Ghost Road, the third book of the trilogy.

Barry Lee Thompson

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