Channel Firing

For the “military post” hour today (it will actually be up some minutes late), we dig into our spotty repository of World War I poetry, to offer up a piece, not by some young officer at the Front, but by one of Britain’s top men of letters, Thomas Hardy. (And here we always thought of him as a 19th Century guy. He was in his seventies as he wrote this and would live more than 10 more years). (Edited to add: this poem was actually written before the war, and he really was, as is mentioned, complaining about a Royal Navy exercise. We had forgotten that). naval_gun_firing_over_vimy_ridge

                       Channel Firing

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgement-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worm drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God cried, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening. . . .

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

artillery-wwi

There is more going on in this poem than seems at first glance. At first, it condemns the madness of the war, and the madness of the men that undertake it — hardly an unusual theme. But the device Hardy chooses, of having the old dead themselves condemn war, and not only them, but God Himself — that’s why he’s one of the Dead White Males people read, and your Grand-Uncle Nigel is not.

“That this is not the judgment hour [is] for some of them a blessed thing,” speaks the deity. It is not coincidental that the guns that wake the dead — an image that is grown from an ancient English expression itself — break the windows not in the house, but in the “chancel,” a word which many will associate vaguely with church but which particularly means the part of a Christian church around the altar; where the priest conducts Mass. (It is elevated above the pews of the parishioners, like a theater stage). The windows here are not simple portals to the outdoors, but usually crafted by the architect to shine light on the altar (the chancel is traditionally the east, sunrise side of the church), and filled with stained-glass decorative art, usually depicting some uplifting sermon, such as Christ’s ascent into heaven.

The poem’s structure and rhyme scheme is simple, its words — apart from chancel and some iconic English place names — consciously basic and Anglo-Saxon.  This makes it very accessible to all classes and all educations, easily memorized, and yet, it rewards some careful study, if you care to try.

12 thoughts on “Channel Firing

  1. Keith

    Thanks for that. Very appropriate as we remember that it was going on 100 years ago as I write this and you read it.

    The gun in the painting is a 60 pounder howitzer. I think the one in the picture is a 12″ howitzer. Both were still in use at the beginning of W W II.

  2. Bill Robbins

    Some of the finest literature that I have ever read was WWI memoirs and autobiographical novels by men in the trenches who were also men of letters. I highly recommend the following authors and books, from all sides in the battles:
    Robert Graves (“Goodbye to All That”) UK
    Erich Remarque (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) German
    Siegfreid Sassoon (“Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”) UK, not German
    Ernst Junger (“Storm of Steel”) German
    Edmund Blunden (“Undertones of War”) UK
    Henry Barbusse (“Under Fire”) French
    Robert McBride (“A Rifleman Went to War”) An American, fighting with the Canadians–a machine gunner and sniper
    Avigdor Hameiri (“The Madness”) An Austro-Hungarian Jew, he wrote in Hebrew from the Eastern Front

    In addition, I recommend Paul Fussel’s “The Great War and Modern Memory,” which explains the lasting impact of WWI on the psyche and culture of the combatant-countries. The language and idioms of WWI live with us to this day. “In the Trenches.” “Over the Top.” “The Whole Nine Yards.” “No-Man’s Land.” The examples go on and on.

    1. Sando182

      To that fine list I’d add:
      I Remember the Last War by Bob Hoffman (American)
      The Glory of the Trenches by Coningsby Dawson (Canadian)

    2. Hognose Post author

      A great lit list, Bill, I’ve read many of them, plus Sassoon’s later book, like “Infantry Officer” a roman à clef, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. He was an interesting character, from a prominent banking family, couldn’t have a Guards commission because he was a Jew so he was commissioned in a Welsh regiment. His poetry can be exceptional and he is probably my favorite of the poets, but he struggled with what we’d now call PTSD.

      ETA — don’t want to give the wrong idea on Sassoon’s religion, but as I understand it most Englishmen weren’t exceptionally bigoted against that faith, but the Guards like Parliament and some other official jobs had a religious test — you had to be C of E. It was really meant to exclude Roman Catholics!

      Concur on Fussell, and I’d never heard of Hamieri. I’ll have to get The Madness, assuming it’s available in English or German.

      1. Bill Robbins

        To find Hamieri (initially published 1930, in Hebrew) in English translation (1952, translated by Jacob Freedman), go to Amazon, search by title (actually, “The Great Madness”) and author, and click on the buying options. I purchased an original hard cover through Amazon from an online used book seller in MD. I had read that Hameiri, in his time, was the go-to source about WWI for mandate-era Palestine’s Jews. He emigrated to Palestine in 1921.

        Interesting side-note about Siegfried Sassoon. Descendant of David, via Baghdad and India. Where would we be without Wikipedia?

  3. Alan Ward

    Some light hearted looks at the war: Good Soldier Schweik ( also Svejk or Schwejk) by Jaroslav Hasek
    The Bandy Papers by Donald Jack.
    Historical items- The British Campaign in Flanders and France by Sir A.C. Doyle.

  4. John McG

    Let me also recommend “The Middle Parts of Fortune (Alternatively titled Her Privates We)”by Frederick Manning. Hemingway reckoned it the best of the fictional treatments of The Great War. One of the minor writers on the First World War was a distant relative of mine named Patrick MacGill. He wrote five or six books dealing with his experiences on the western front, the best known of which are “The Red Horizon” and “The Great Push”. He was born in Southwest Donegal and ended up fighting with the London Irish early in the war. I believe Fussell gives him a mention in TGWAMM as recommended above.

    Thanks by the way, you’ve really been outdoing yourself these past weeks.

  5. Pangur

    WWI, perhaps the most literary war, in no small part because of the presence of such a highly educated soldiery.

    Lots of good recommendations here; I’ll put in my two cents and say that “There’s A Devil In The Drum” by John Lucy is a favorite. Lucy was an Irishman who joined the Royal Irish Rifles, an Ulster Regiment, in 1912. Lucy has some interesting insights into the pre-war BEF. These serve as contrast for Lucy’s wartime observations, not least of which concern the transformation of the BEF into the mass army that would fight the war after the Old Contemptibles were ground into nothingness. Lucy was at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, Aisne and Neuve Chappelle, where Lucy’s brother, who enlisted with him, died. There are many great passages in this book, of particular interest to me is Lucy’s description of his tactics of staying alive in the trenches — places to avoid, how to travel, etc. I’d quote it at length, but this comment is getting too long already.

    Re: Hardy’s Channel Firing — it’s uncompromising, and its effortlessness makes it seem lighter than it is. Interestingly, this poem was published in April 1914, as the clouds were gathering, but not during the war.

  6. OBob

    I just started reading “The Rules of the Game,” ostensibly about Jutland but really detailing the effects of good-idea-at-the-time fads that outlived their assumptions combined with the emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome that prevents the voicing of inconvenient realities on military effectiveness. I’m lovin’ it!

    I quite expect Volume II to be published 50 years from now, looking at our actions today.

  7. TRX

    > glebe

    That looked vaguely Yiddish to me, but google says “a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman’s benefice and providing income.”

    I then had to look up “benefice”, which appears to be the same thing as a “glebe” and not at all the same as “beneficient.”

    English, she is-a verra strange…

    Some decades ago I took the college entrance test. Fully a third of the history section dealt with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and a big chunk of the vocabulary section dealt with specialized terms from the Catholic and Anglican churches. I had to look up “synecdoche” in the dictionary when I got home. I was annoyed; it was a state college, not divinity school… (and in those decades, I’ve never encountered “synecdoche” again…)

  8. Byron The Dog

    And if you read the great poet and author of I Claidius, Robert Graves’ brilliant WWI memoire, “Goodbye to all That”, you’ll find that when Graves got home from the war he lived up the road from Hardy and took tea with the great man. Small world in those days…

    And while I’m at it, I’m not sure you can blame the Guards for not letting Sassoon in. In 1914 Lloyd George, the Welsh prime minister notices that there were no Welsh Guards and so the Royal Welch Fusileers (not a spelling mistake) were asked if they wanted to be Guardees and told the “Welsh Windbag” where to go on the basis that they were such an ancient regiment. The result was the Welsh Guards had to be mustered from scratch. Sassoon therefore, was in a regiment that looked down on Guardees as social inferiors, no mean feat. The RWF were so ancient that they wore a little black ribbon on the rear collars of the jackets at least until the 1980s because at some point they were posted to the West Indies when the regs about platting hair changed and no one told them. When they got back to England they just carried on wearing their hair in a plait, hence the vestigial bow.

    I must get out more…

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