Gas masks and my Grandfather

I found it really interesting in Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” how he describes one of the soldiers who failed to get their gas mask on time and the effects of that.

This made an impact on me because of a story my Grandfather told me many times about when he was in the army in WWII.  One of the stories he told was that when he was training to fight he had to do many things he did not like, such as raming a hanging sandbag with a bayonet and learning how to get it unstuck, such as placing your foot on the sandbag (person) and shoving them away.  He said that while he did not like doing that even in practice, it was drilled into them that it was nessasary becuase of they lost their weapon they were dead.

One day while training, my grandfather was put into a gas chamber with several other people.  Everyone had their gas masks strapped onto them and they began to let the gas into the chamber.  My grandfather tells me that he remembers starting to get very dizzy and that he could not think straight.  After he collapsed they turned the gas off and rushed him to the medical unit, realizing that his gas mask had had a fatal flaw in it.  After that my Grandfather was not allowed to fight in the war anymore.  He was still in the military, just not allowed to actually fight.  My Grandfather is a gentle soul, and no doubt is glad that he never had to test that sandbag technique out on a real person.

I was wondering, how much worse would it have been if this particular soldier had gotten his mask on and yet still been killed?  Is what he felt similar to what my grandfather felt?  Or were the types of gas much different?  I also wish I knew if that mask was destroyed or repaired and given to another soldier.  It would be so cool to know; since that would mean that my grandfathers fate in that incident would have helped to save another’s life on the front lines.


Sean’s Bridge to the Blog

In class today we focused on Owen, specifically his use of the religious in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” and some of the formal elements in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” One thing that I wish we touched more on was Owen’s portrayal not only of war, but nationalism/the nation as an idea or concept.

I bring up this topic because in the famous final lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen does not make a statement about dying for your country in WWI specifically. Rather, his statement is more general, saying (translated) “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” If he wanted to, he could have expressed his frustration about WWI itself and the reasons why he saw this particular war as egregious (as he did in the “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”). However, by choosing not to do so, we can assume that Owen thinks it is never “sweet and honorable to die for one’s country,” no matter the circumstance. This, of course, goes against the prevailing narrative that dying in service of one’s country is the most honorable thing one can do (e.g. “The Charge of the Light Brigade”). If we assume that this is what Owen intended (and not that he used the lines just so that he could directly invoke Horace), the most obvious question is – why? If it was not because WWI was uniquely horrific, why does Owen have such a distaste for ever dying for one’s country? Or, as is certainly possible, am I reading too much into this? Is Owen’s reasoning tied only to the nature of WWI itself? Does he spend the majority of the poem describing, in nauseatingly vivid detail, the experience of a WWI soldier in the trenches because his opinion is only meant to be read as a response to WWI? Or, does he do so because he believes it to be the most way to get his message across?

I think a potential answer to these questions can be found in an Owen poem that we did not talk about in class today, “Smile, Smile, Smile.” To commit the heresy of paraphrase, the poem is about a group of soldiers reading an issue of an English newspaper and lamenting about all of the propaganda that it is spreading. One such piece of propaganda comes at the end of the quoted article, saying “‘The greatest glory will be theirs who fought, / Who kept this nation in integrity.'” (16-17). Immediately following this we read,

“Nation? – The half-limbed readers did not chafe / But smiled at one another curiously / Like secret men who know their secret safe. / (This is the thing they know and never speak, / That England one by one had fled to France, Not many elsewhere now, save under France.)” (18-23).

Here, it seems to me that Owen is suggesting that they (the soldiers) are England itself and that those at home have no right to speak of the “nation” of England because they are no longer a part of it. In some ways this seems compatible with sentiments such as Rupert Brooke’s “If I should die, think only this of me: That there is some corner of a foreign field / that is for ever England” (From “The Soldier,” 1-3). Yet, Owen’s sentiment is also vastly different. For Owen, the soldiers are not an extension of England, or fighting for England, they are England. Or, perhaps, there is no longer any England at all. Maybe England can only exist under the confines of France, because that is where the war is. To be honest, I’m not sure. The more I think about these lines the more interpretations I come up with. All of this is to say that Owen’s idea of the nation, especially when it is at war, is far from the convention at the time. And I think this view of the nation (whatever it is) can be used in order to read the ending of “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Perhaps Owen is so against dying for one’s country because his view of what a nation actually is has tainted his view of patriotism/nationalism. Does any of this make sense? What other readings can you come up with for these poems and their relation (or lack thereof) to each other? Did I miss Owen talking about nation in a different poem? Are there any other Owen poems that can be used in order to explain his supposed general distaste for dying for one’s country? Have his experiences in WWI changed his opinion on what it means to be a nation? Have I been thinking too much about the artificiality of the nation because of my postcolonial literature class? Hopefully some answers come as we stumble across this semester’s bleak ending.

Word Count: 800

Before the semester is over…

What was your favorite piece we read this semester? Why?

Or, what is something you didn’t expect to learn in this class, but did?

Or! What was the most shocking thing we talked about, read, or found this semester?

Is it all just a joke?

I know that we finished reading Lawrence a while ago but I am writing an essay on her book and am still super annoyed that she did not talk about her experience at the war. Her whole purpose was to get to the front so she could write a realistic portrayal of war. Yet the entire time she describes everything but the war. In fact, throughout the book she makes many humorous comments to the point in which I am now doubting her credibility. She makes everything seem so light-hearted and great. Even when she does tell us about some of the hardships she experienced, they’re very vague and short; she leaves so much out. I just can’t understand why someone would go through all of that trouble to get to the front, stay there for 10 days, and then not even talk about it. Someone in my class said that she thinks she is an attention-seeker who wants to boast. I can definitely see that after finishing the book. She makes herself look good and war look even better. It really bothers me that I will never know what happened those ten days.

A Few Thoughts/Questions on Owen

My post focuses on “Apologia pro Poemate Meo” (160-1) and “Mental Cases” (170-1).

“Apologia pro Poemate Meo” means “in defense of my poetry.” When I read the first line, “I, too, saw God through mud,” my first thoughts were that the poem was going to be about how he lost some of his poems in the trenches. We discussed that some authors lost their work, so I thought that would be the case here. But as I kept reading, I got the feeling that Owen wrote this poem to emphasize that there were still stories in the trenches: ones that had “poetic” emotion, so to speak. He mentions a lot of poetic tropes in it: death, laughing, “Fear,” friendship, “Joy,” beauty, love, music, and more. Since people censored a lot of WWI works, I can see why Owen wrote this to defend his poetry.

For “Mental Cases,” I had a question for discussion. Owen describes the soldiers in this poem as animalistic, crazed, and demented, but at the beginning of the second stanza, he says “These are men whose minds the Death have ravished.” To me, this hints of PTSD. So, my question is, does this poem dehumanize the soldiers or does it accurately portray symptoms of PTSD?

Why Did Owen Pick A Quote From Yeats?

In Owen’s The Show he first quotes a man named W.B. Yeats. I liked this quote a lot so I decided to look up who he was. I found out that he was an Irish poet as well as a Senator, but as far as I have seen, he never fought. Since Owen was a combatant I was interested why he would pick a quote from someone who did not share his experience of the war, especially since there was the huge problem of who really got to tell the story of what the war was like. After some more research I found that Yeats was a strong advocate against the war, calling it an “outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen.” Yeats, being a well known poet of the time, was asked to write about the war by his peers. In return he published On Being Asked for a War Poem in which he wrote, “I think it better that in times like these A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”  This seemed ironic to me, since he often wrote poetry about Irish politics. This becomes even more confusing when I saw that Yeats actually disliked Owen, stating that he is, “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper” because “he is all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick.” With the small amount of research that I did I could not find any other connection between Yeats and Owen.

The quote Owen starts with is from Yeats’ Shadowy Waters, which is about men who have been at sea for a long time. While it contemplates death, it gives the reader the impression that things will be alright in the end, he even uses terms such as love and immortality. In the end the main character is with his lover and it could be implied that they either live or die happily together. I also found that Owen did not finish the quote completely, it goes on to say that, “And find their laughter sweeter to the taste For that brief sighing.” Possibly, Owen could be contradicting Yeats but other than that I am struggling to see the connection between the two poets and the quote that Owen chose and find it very interesting.

Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est

Reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I found it very interesting how he ends the poem with ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’. Searching it up at the back of the book and online, it translates as ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’, and comes from Horace’s Odes.
Owen describes this sentiment as a ‘Lie’ and the fact that he capitalises this I think makes it even more profound. Maybe he capitalised it for some other reason that I’m not entirely sure about, but I personally read it as being capitalised to emphasise the inaccurate truth and ‘patriotism’ that people back at home would have been fed about the war (not to say that patriotism is a bad thing, but just that maybe during this time it was surrounded and pushed by more lies and less reality?) I think it’s similar to Paul’s narrative in All Quiet on the Western Front, and even Nellie’s when she quits working as an ambulance driver, and of course Borden’s numerous narrations on the medical horrors that we read. All feel, maybe some more than others, that they were unable to say aloud the truth or go against the ‘lies’. By Owen also claiming that it was the ‘children’ who fed into this ‘desperate glory’ makes it more chilling, especially after reading the horrific ways in which these men died (‘his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’).

Is Dorothy really the only one?

So in class, we mentioned that Dorothy Lawrence is the only woman proven to have participated on the front lines in WWI. As dubious as I am, I couldn’t believe it. So, I did some of my own research and found out about a couple more women who (may or may not have-I don’t have much proof) enlisted.

  1. Flora Sandes (1876-1956)

    Flora Sandes in uniform

    Sandes began as a St. John’s Ambulance volunteer and upon traveling to Serbia to provide aid, joined several different Serbian ambulance volunteers. During the retreat of Serbian forces through Albania (often referred to as the Great Retreat), all of her fellow ambulance staff were killed or deserted. No longer useful as one person, General Miloš Vasić enlisted Sandes as a private in the Serbian 3rd Army and she quickly advanced to Corporal and finally, Sergeant major. During her service, she received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star. In 1916, Sandes published an autobiography about her time in the war and titled it: An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army.   

  2. Maria Bochkarevka (1889-1920)

Maria Bochkareva and the Women’s Battalion of Death

In order to escape an abusive family and husband, Maria Bochkarevka wrote to Czar Nicholas II and petitioned the Siberian law disallowing women from service. The Czar granted her request to serve and Bochkarevka was sent to the front in 1915. In 1917, Bochkarevka began the Women’s Battalion of Death, an “an all-female combat unit designed to shame the male soldiers of the Russian Army into fighting harder.” In the summer offensive of the same year, the Women’s Battalion of Death went into battle and penetrated three trench lines. Later in life, she met a Russian journalist in New York and together the pair wrote her autobiography.

Link to a brief overview of Bochkarevka and Sandes

Link to a NY Times article about Bochkarevka

A really cool video about Bochkarevka done by the same channel we’ve been watching all semester:


A video about Flora Sandes:


Sapper Smith

I was doing some research on Dorothy Lawrence and found out that a short film was actually made about her life earlier this year by a group of London Goldsmiths Film students. 

It hasn’t been released to the public yet (I don’t think) but it was selected by the Edinburgh Independent Film Awards Festival for best student film!

They released a teaser trailer eleven days ago which I’ll insert below if you’re curious!

If you’re still curious, here are a couple of links to find out more about the film:

Link to their kickstarter where you can learn more about the film.

Link to the film’s facebook page.