The Empty World

In her working life Lizzie was a librarian with a love of poetry, especially the old kind. When she worked as one of the librarians at the Scottish Poetry Library (from 1993 until 2017) she had the good fortune to be given the opportunity to compile several anthologies, including Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at war 1914-1918 (Polygon/SPL, 2015). This furthered her interest in the First World War, and led to several other WWI projects, and to a deep attachment to the war poets. Now retired and spending most of her time on gardening and grandchildren, she is always happy to open her books of poetry again and return to old fascinations.

One hundred years ago the world was in a state of recovery. The immense trauma of the First World War had been swiftly followed by a pandemic, as the Spanish flu tore through country after country. The last cases were recorded in 1920, so that for the duration of six years, death, destruction, uncertainty and despair had ravaged the world: 17 million people were killed in the war, and it is now thought that the pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives. Tragically, both those riders of the apocalypse, war and plague, had targeted the younger generation.

By 1921 then, the task of picking up the pieces of those appalling six years lay largely with the older generation. It was the parents and grandparents, who had themselves lived through bereavement and deprivation, who bore the brunt of caring for the maimed, the ill and the orphaned. Living as we are through another pandemic, we must surely have great empathy with those difficult times.

In Pale Rider, her magnificent history of the Spanish flu, Laura Spinney muses on what she calls our ‘collective forgetting’ of the pandemic, which is in complete contrast to our very nearly obsessive referring back to the two greatest wars of the 20th century. She is puzzled, too, by the literary silence in respect of the pandemic; where she might have expected to find a great outpouring of emotion, she found a dearth. I wanted to explore what poetry was written in Scotland in the immediate post-war years about the flu, the aftermath of war, and commemoration.

I have a personal reason for doing this. Not, as you probably think, because of a grandfather or great-uncle killed – no, my attachments number many more than that. My work on the anthology of First World War Scottish poetry led me to read dozens of privately printed booklets by what we might call amateur writers, people previously unpublished – the huge outpouring of verse which has come to be forever a part of the mythology of the First World War. These were not great poets, but people who wrote from their hearts in reaction to the overwhelming force of war. I held their books in the National Library, I learned of their ordinary lives or their tragic deaths, and in some cases managed to trace their families. I got emotionally involved.

Now I wanted to see what these men and women had to say in the aftermath of war. I wanted to know if they looked back and tried to make sense of the four years of conflict, to see if they examined their feelings and told of their survivors’ guilt, their troubled dreams, and even the everyday miseries of demobilisation, unemployment, shortages and the Spanish flu. In fact, I didn’t find very much that was new to me. It seems that neither recognised writers nor the war-time beginners dwelt much upon the aftermath. There is no doubt that the cataclysm of war changed all the arts, hastening the embrace of modernism, but that great shake-up took time to develop, and I don’t think that is what was in play here. Perhaps it’s just that the time was past. Those of us who had parents and grandparents who served in the wars will remember their reticence; they didn’t talk about their experiences, so perhaps something similar was at work. The war was over, the pandemic had been and gone, and it was best to forget about it and get on with life.

Because you can’t talk about the post-war years without reflecting on memorials, I shall first consider verse used in commemoration, and in my next two blog instalments, look at what the poets had to say.

In Memoriam

If one movement united communities in their sorrow during and after the war, it was to make some form of memorial to those they had lost. Marking great events or great losses in some physical way is a basic human need; it is a focus for grief and something to do when positive activity is needed – a gesture against the emptiness of fate and an assurance that losses will not be forgotten. Since words are what we use to tell of our joys and griefs, and of those words, poetry is the most essential form, it is logical to assume that much poetry was employed in commemoration.

Currie War Memorial

The decision to bury all the dead where they fell, in Europe and beyond, and not to allow bodies to be brought home, was hotly disputed at the time. Although it caused much heartache, with hindsight we know it was the right decision, and we know that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has succeeded in creating and maintaining some of the most serene places of remembrance in the world. The deaths of the ordinary boys and men who had gone to war called for a different type of commemoration from the edifices erected to celebrate victorious battles in previous centuries.

A limitation to expression of grief was imposed by the insistence on a uniform design of headstone, which allowed space for only 66 extra characters (at a cost to the family of 3½d each) for a personal inscription. Perhaps that is why many families commissioned short poems for their dead, to appear in local newspapers with an obituary, or why snatches of verse sometimes accompanied entries in the county Rolls of Honour. To a modern reader’s taste, most of these elegiac verses, often written by the local minister or newspaperman, have aspirations too classical or religious to appeal. The truth is, we speak a different language today.

But sorrowing families needed some physical presence on home territory to mark their grief, and long before the end of the war communities were putting up memorials to their dead. These ‘street shrines’, often just made of wood with the names painted on, were eventually replaced by more solid edifices of stone – in Scotland often in the shape of a cairn or a Celtic cross. Paid for by public subscription, there are well over 1000 of these community memorials standing across Scotland, and hundreds more in various forms in schools and golf clubs, stations and learned institutions. Once again, if lines or verses appear, they are traditional assurances of the glory of death.

But if the words in public places were required to be sonorous, there are poems about the memorials which are much more emotive and which may chime with our sympathies:

The first two verses of ‘The Unveiling’ by JB Salmond sum up the feelings that must have been common to all who planned and built and gazed upon their memorials:

    Out of the mist of yearnings, prides, and shames
    We raise our cairn of glorious regret,
    And with God’s honour now unite the names
    Men signed in bloody sweat.
    Lest we forget – for we forget so soon
    The gifts so much beyond our valuing –
    So much of life laid down in life’s high noon,
    So much of suffering.

Mary Symon of Dufftown wrote some of the most moving poems of the war in her native Banffshire Scots, and ‘The Soldiers’ Cairn’ expressed what all must have felt – sad optimism for a better future alongside aching loss, as the last two verses attest:

    Oh! build it fine and build it fair,
    Till it leaps to the moorland sky —
    More, more than death is symbolled there,
    Than tears or triumphs by.
    There’s the Dream Divine of a starward way
    Our laggard feet would learn—
    It’s a new earth’s corner-stone we’d lay
    As we fashion the Soldiers’ Cairn.

    Lads in your plaidies lyin’ still
    In lands we’ll never see,
    This lanely cairn on a hameland hill
    Is a’ that oor love can dee;
    An’ fine an’ braw we’ll mak’ it a’,
    But oh, my Bairn, my Bairn,
    It’s a cradle’s croon that’ll aye blaw doon
    To me fae the Soldiers’ Cairn.

Join Lizzie MacGregor next week for her second of three blog instalments to mark our November theme of War & Remembrance.

Throughout November we’re inviting our beloved Autumn Voices members to submit any short piece of writing about War & Remembrance. It should be no longer than 300 words and can take any form you wish. At the end of November, we’ll pick our favourite and the author will receive a copy of Codebreaking Sisters by Patricia and Jean Owtram. The publisher, Mirror Books has very kindly given us a copy to offer as a prize.

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