Saturday 6 July 2013

Weekend Walkthrough: And in the Morning, by John Wilson

And in the Morning, by John Wilson
Published by Kids Can Press

Jim Hay is fifteen, thinks war is a glorious adventure, and cannot wait for his turn to fight. But as his father boldly marches off to battle in August 1914, Jim must be content to record his thoughts and dreams in his journal.
All too quickly, however, Jim's simple life begins to unravel. His father is killed in action, his mother suffers a breakdown, and when he does at last join up, it is as much to find a refuge as it is to seek glory.
What Jim discovers in the trenches of France is enough to dispel any romantic view of the war. Soon his longing for adventure is replaced by a basic need to survive, and the final tragic outcome is one he never could have imagined. 

As well as looking for a book I could review for the Weekend Walkthrough, this book appealed to me for selfish reasons. When I was in sixth form, my English class had to write a transformation from one type of literature into another, and I decided to turn Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum Est into a series of letters. You can read it here if you like, although I make no promises that it will be up to anyone's standards! I've gone off topic a bit, but the blurb made me think of what I wrote. Dulce et Decorum Est is my favourite poem ever - it's so full of power and poignancy - and I hoped that this book could channel that somewhat.

And in the Morning is presented originally as a diary, and then as a mix up of diary entries and letters to Jim's sweetheart, Anne. At the beginning, Jim is incredibly naive, and has been swept up in the glory and hype surrounding the First World War. He can't wait to go. It's only Anne, and to some extent his best friend Iain, that come close to making him aware of war's many negatives. The story goes through personal events for Jim before eventually, he and Iain lie about their ages and go to war.

I can't say I was overly impressed, unfortunately. Whether it is just because of what came to my mind when reading the blurb, or something else, I found the story really one-sided. I guess that's the danger with diaries/letters! It also seemed very much means as an educational book rather than something to read and get lost in. I felt a slight fondness for Jim and Anne and felt a little bit sad/happy when the occasion called for it, but that was about it. I think John Wilson tried to cover all bases in giving the picture of WWI, even including news snippets, but there wasn't enough feeling there. It'll be a great book for homework, but it doesn't induce the emotions it had the potential to.

* * * * * * * * * *

The causes of World War I are a little complicated, so I'll try to keep things simple. Tensions were high between Austria-Hungary (then made up of several countries) and Serbia, to the point where both countries were looking for a reason to go to war between themselves. On 28th June 1914, Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a member of a Serbian secret society - the Black Hand. While this website mentions that nobody really cared about the death of Ferdinand, it was the spark Austria-Hungary needed to start war with Serbia. Being really simplistic here, it then became about whose 'side' certain countries were on. The most notable were: Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy, who formed the Triple Alliance, and the Triple Entente (or Allies), on Serbia's side, formed of Great Britain, France and Russia.

When the war started in 1914, a shorter period of service was brought in, so that men could serve for "three years, or the duration of the war, whichever the longer." Men between 18 and 38 could join up, although they had to be taller than 5' 3'', and could only be sent overseas from the age of 19. However, in this book and Mudlark, there was a very lax attitude to ages, in which young faces were sometimes ignored and ages not checked in order to achieve the numbers expected. In And in the Morning, there is mention of a 14-year-old boy giving his age as 16 and being told to "go for a walk round the block and come back when you're 19." There's also a 16-year-old character, Albert, whose mum finds out about his enlistment and brings his birth certificate to the base in order to drag him back home.

According to this website, 80,000 men were identified as having shell shock, as it was known back then (it's now nearer to what we'd call post-traumatic stress disorder). The disorientation and shock of being bombed (and possibly injured), mixed in with other atrocities, meant that some men were 'wounded in mind'. There was little sympathy for those afflicted with this, and if a man was caught 'deserting' his post, even if it was only as a result of shell shock, or because he was cold and wanted to get warm, it was possible he could be court martialled.

Particularly at the beginning of the war, if he was found guilty of deserting, the sentence was often death. Twelve of his peers would be called in to form a firing squad. The soldier would be tied and blindfolded, with something placed over his heart as a target. Each of the twelve peers would fire their gun - it was said to be less damaging for them this way, since nobody would know who had shot the fatal bullet at, if not their friend, their colleague.

According to this website, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed, with none of them receiving posthumous pardons or appearing on war memorials until a ruling overturned this in 2006.

It may be worthwhile to note that the Second Boer War had only finished 12 years before the First World War. In the Boer War, a common strategy was to ride horses into battle - a cavalry attack. It was therefore likely, according to this website, that most senior military personnel believed it was the most effective way of fighting. However, trench warfare became predominant throughout WWI, rendering horses ineffective.

Trenches are deep ditches formed in lines. They were deep enough for soldiers to stand in, although as the Germans were the first to dig, they usually got the higher ground. This meant that Allied soldiers often spend a lot of time in flooded trenches. See this blog post for more information. Trenches would then be protected with sandbags (to absorb explosions and gunfire) and barbed wire (to stop enemies passing). The strip of land between the trenches of both sides was known as No Man's Land, as stepping foot onto it usually meant certain death. It's usually a sign of attrition now - which was General Haig's preferred way of doing things. It basically meant to wear down the other side until it was weakened through loss of soldiers.

Unfortunately, this went both ways. Other methods of killing (other than guns) were tanks, used for the first time, and poison gas such as chlorine, which clung to and eroded any moist parts of the body (so nose, eyes, mouth, and ultimately, lungs).

Propaganda and censorship
Propaganda was used by the government to get as much of the general public as possible on side, as well as tight-lipped about information, so spies could not report anything of use back to their countries. Famous examples are of posters and illustrations urging people to do their bit for the war effort and enlist, like the one pictured.

A vast amount of poetry was generated by soldiers fighting in World War I, much of which is still studied in schools. There's even mention of it in And in the Morning, a poem of which is below, by Isaac Rosenberg. Firstly though, I thought I'd include Dulce et Decorum Est, as I mentioned it earlier and it's the one that, for me, is the most evocative poem I've ever read, although it's not mentioned in the book. The title was taken from the Latin saying 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', which meant 'It is sweet and meet [right] to die for one's country'.

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen - (this website explains its unclear terms well)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Returning, We Hear the Larks, by Isaac Rosenberg
Sombre the night is.
And though we have lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! Joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams 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.

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