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Ghosts of War – A History of World War I in Poetry and Prose

Andrew Ferguson
In his literary history, “the great war and modern memory,” which in my humble opinion is one of the best books about both poetry and WWI Paul Fussell utilises literature and in particular poetry to examine the 1st World War and its effects on the human condition. The reason I mention this book is purely to demonstrate the resonance that poetry can have and that it allows people to begin to understand the reality of war. In the context of ‘Ghosts of War,’ my view is that whilst Andrew Ferguson’s book does not equal Fussell’s analytical yet emotional resonance, it has its own value in the canon of examinations of WWI poetry, in a historical context. With a strong (but not total) presence of viewing the war from a Scottish perspective (including a foreword by Nicola Sturgeon) the book has the usual cast of the Great War poets and more well known poems such as Owens ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth,’ but It’s strength lies in the use of poems which are unknown and by unknown or not well known poets. One such example is Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed at the Battle of Loos, 13 October 2015, who wrote in his poem ‘To Germany,’

“When it is peace,then we may view again
With New-won eyes each others truer form…
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.”

I particularly like the inclusion of poems from Russian, Italian, French and German contributors such as this one by a German poet Alfred Lichtenstein who wrote ‘Leaving for the Front on 7 August 1914. Seven weeks later, as he foretold in his poem, he was dead,

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet my friends, and do not waste my time.

We’re marching off in company with death…”

The positives of this book are two-fold. The anecdotes are excellent and many were unknown to me, despite my extensive reading about WWI. An excellent example is the tale of Elsie Inglis, the founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who, having been told by the War Office to “Go home and sit still,” took herself to France and opened a hospital treating some 10,000 patients over the course of the war. The book is worth reading for these anecdoteal gems alone. The second is his choice of poets, (with an emphasis in the main on Scottish poets) and the narrative following the change from jingoistic poetry such as JP Ede’s “Counted For’ to that of the traditionally known ‘futility of war’ Such as Sassoon’s, ‘Does it Matter’ or Ewart Alan Macintosh’s ‘Carol of the Innocents.’ There are other poems by famous war poets which I have not previously read or forgotten and one which resonates is “Corporal Stare, by Robert Graves,

“Stare ! Killed last month at Festubert,
Caught on patrol near the Boche wire
Torn horribly by machine-gun fire.
He passed, saluted smartly, grinned,
Then passed away like a puff of wind…”

There is no doubt Ferguson’s research and reading has been solid and thorough and this historical commentary is nicely aligned to the poems and commentary on the history of the poets. This also makes the book worth reading.

I do have a criticism however; what is not so strong is the historical narrative about the course of the war which to me is sometimes over-simplistic and has an unbalanced flow, flitting between hard history, the aforementioned anecdotes and then poems and poets. In truth this knocks the readability of the book somewhat and becomes a little irritating. Whilst not a critical fault, primarily because the book is saved by the merit of its strengths, I am not clear on why it was structured in this way and it does detract slightly from the books enjoyability.

Many people know of the more famous war poetry which came from the Great War and many on ARRSE will know it has reached beyond its years as a universal language with, arguably, a huge resonance on the British psyche. This book adds to that canon and, if anything, helps enhance it due to the aforementioned inclusion of a wide variety of poems from unknown poets. Having said that, despite it’s weak point, I am glad read this book – some of the poems new to me are tremendous and evocative. Poems containing lines such as these are always worth contemplation:

“…Before sticking your bayonet into his groin,
Did you not see the Christ-like look of his opponent?
Did you not notice that the man over there had a kingly heart of love?”

From ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’ by Yvan Goll

4 Mushroom Heads.

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