In the Margins of the War
One way to describe Wounded Soldiers is as the story of three characters trying to survive in the margins of the First World War. There’s Billy Fiddler, an ex-Barnardo child, suffering from post-traumatic stress; Johnny Singer, a young man with cerebral palsy whom the British health system has dumped into what was unashamedly called an “Idiot Asylum”; and Lydia Grant, a young Jamaican nurse who has come to England to help with the war effort. Johnny wants to write poetry and Lydia writes it down for him.
They are three isolated individuals who cling together for understanding and warmth. The official histories always neglect to tell us how many marginal men and women were caught up in the fine nets of the war. And though it was a battle for European power, its impact was felt by ordinary people in the remotest parts of the world. The first shot of the war on August 5 was fired (guess where!) on the coast of Australia, and finally, after the armistice of November 11, 1918, it still continued on for a few more days in East Africa. Twenty years ago when I was living in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, on the walls of the run-down little restaurant where I went most days for my midday noodles, there were faded photographs of Thai soldiers huddled in trenches on the Somme. They had been sent there by their king to prove to the colonial powers that Siam, as it was then called, was an independent player on the world stage. So many different scenarios, all of them senseless. I kept on imagining how strange the snow must have seemed to those tropic peasants during that first winter in France, a dangerous magic indeed! The restaurant went bankrupt long ago and when I ask nobody seems to know what happened to those unique snapshots.
Sandanu Das reminds us that more than two million Africans fought and worked for Europe’s armies; 1.4 million Indians. Those are mind-numbing numbers, like all the statistics of the war. But here is the voice of one of them, a prisoner of war by the name of Mall Singh, recorded improbably by the Prussian Phonographic Commission in Wunsdorf near Berlin in December 1916:
“There was once a man.
He used to eat butter in his native Hindustan.
He used to drink milk.
This man then came into the European war.
Germany captured this man.
He wishes to return to India."
I have typed it out as though it were a poem, because for me that is what it is. In its flat essence I find it a far more powerful and moving poem than any that were written by English gentlemen.
And that brings me round to another marginalized poet who was much in my mind as Rob and I worked on the script of Wounded Soldiers. Isaac Rosenberg was a poor Jew from the East End of London (Stepney, actually, the largely Jewish neighbourhood where Doctor Barnardo established his first home for boys). He was a tiny young man in very poor health, but a talented visual artist (see the attached self-portrait) and a remarkable self-taught poet. Unlike almost everyone else in England he didn’t rejoice in the declaration of war as an opportunity for heroism and glory. He had gone to South Africa for his health, hoping that the climate would relieve the infection in his lungs. His poem, “On Receiving News of the War” (check it out on Wikipedia) is one of the few things written at that time that seems to come from a recognition of just how terrible the war will be. Rosenberg returned to England and volunteered for the army, not out of patriotism, but because he had no other way of making a living. The army needed all the men they could get, even those who were desperately ill-suited for it like Rosenberg; they even had a special “Bantam Battalion” for small men.
Throughout the nightmare of the war, Rosenberg never despaired. Instead, his poems are full of the awareness that all this carnage around him cannot eliminate the occasional, accidental moments of beauty – a beauty so intense that it is dangerous in its own way. In “Returning We Hear the Larks” he writes:
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dream on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
And in “Break of Day in the Trenches”, which Paul Fussell has described as “the greatest poem of the war”, he talks to a rat that is a companion presence:
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Like the rat he is surrounded with “shrieking iron and flame,” but for the moment, just for this moment, they survive:
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping,
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
Rosenberg was killed at dawn on April 1, 1918; for many years after his death his poems almost disappeared, and they are still not nearly as widely read as they deserve to be. But when you see Wounded Soldiers, if you listen carefully, you may hear echoes of his voice in Johnny’s poems and in the songs that seem sometimes to spring from his consciousness.
And there I’ll leave them: these three improbable poets – Mall Singh, Isaac Rosenberg and Johnny Singer – who scratched their own truths in the margins of the most pointless of all the pointless wars in human history.
-Ian McLachlan, July 2014
Photo by: Lindy Powell