To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Siegfried Sassoon, this blog will look at a number of collections in the Special Collections reflecting on warfare in the 20th century. These include two poems by the long-time friend of Sassoon, Edmund Blunden.
Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) was the longest serving First World War poet, and saw continuous action in the front line, between 1916-18. According to his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, Blunden was the poet of the war “most lastingly obsessed by it”. The period that Blunden served at the front saw some of the most violent and bloody fighting, including the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres. He had very definite views on war writing, insisting that it had to be accurate in detail and in spirit and he shared with Sassoon a belief that the First World War had been a terrible waste of life.
The Special Collections holds two of Blunden’s poems (MS10): fair copies of ‘Portrait of a colonel’ and ‘The passer-by’. Both were published in Retreat (London, 1928) with the former renamed as ‘On a portrait of a colonel’.A more substantial literary collection held at Southampton is MS328, that of Frank Templeton Prince (1912-2003). He is probably best remembered for his collection Soldiers Bathing (1954), the title poem of which is one of the most anthologised poems of the Second World War. His archive collection contains not only notebooks and drafts of poems and prose writing, 1920s-87, but long series of correspondence, including correspondence with Edmund Blunden, 1932-58. The soldier hero has proved to be one of the most durable and powerful ideas of idealised masculinity in western tradition since antiquity. For the poet Martin Bell, however, there was nothing heroic about either soldiering or military service, for him it was a life of crushing boredom. Bell volunteered for the Royal Engineers in 1939, in order, so he claimed, to avoid being called into the infantry. He spent his war service in camp as a hospital orderly both in UK and in the Mediterranean, and later as an instructor. His collection (MS12) of correspondence to Joan Broomfield, who was one of his circle of friends from his days at University College, Southampton, contains scathing comments on army life as well as reflecting his literary progress and including poems he had written. In a letter to Joan Broomfeld, from 1943, he expressed his dislike of army life and the boredom of his duties “we Pavlov’s dogs commended by imperious telephones, we cramp our reluctant flesh into organisation…” [MS12 A767/37]
The collection (MS376) of the poet Judith Lask Grubler provides very different reflections on warfare during the Second World War, drawing as she does a picture from the home front. In her writings, which date from the 1930s onwards, Grubler gives a contemporary account in such war related poems as ‘After the raids’ of the experience of civilians facing bombing raids on London.
This material fits well with a small collection of correspondence of Nora Harvey, a student at University College, Southampton, 1939. She writes of the impact of the war on the University as well as Southampton’s role as a port of embarkation and as a military camp. She noted that: “….Part of the college building is being used for a hospital and ARP depot etc…. The Common is horrid – all roped off, full of soldiers and rest camps. Lorry loads of troops are continually going up and down outside our window, and we can hear troops being drilled at all hours of the day.” [MS310/63 A4028]Other papers reflecting on war include: diaries of Revd Michael Adler (MS125); letters and diary of Private Paul Epstein (MS124); correspondence and diaries of Leonard Stein (MS170); correspondence of Fred Salinger, Gallipoli (MS209); and correspondence of Frederick Dudley Samuel (MS336).
Revd Adler was one of a small number of Jewish chaplains attached to the forces in France. He, along with his colleagues worked tirelessly to visit the camps, training areas and hospitals to fulfil their pastoral duties. The four diaries that Adler kept for this period provide a brief record of his activities during his tours of duty rather than an analytical or personal account of his experiences as chaplain. They are detached and sparse in their detail and tone, as befits the type of record they represent, but also perhaps representing the need for detachment in dealing with a traumatic situation.
Private Epstein was a Russian conscript to the Royal Fusiliers (the Jewish Regiment) who served in the Palestine campaign. He suffered greatly from home sickness and this is recorded in his diary and correspondence. His letters describe daily events in great detail and he maintained his diary, even when he had nothing to record. Sometimes he summarises the content of his letters home in his diary. He used his letters as a means to maintain some sense of normality and create a strong link with home. As he noted in a letter to his parents of 16 March 1918: “A line to inform you that I received your second letter last Fri[day] March 13th and the sight of it was worth to me untold wealth…” [MS124 AJ 15/2]Frederick Dudley Samuel, CBE, DSO (1877-1951) served in the South African war of 1901-2 and then with the British Expeditionary Forces in France, 1915-18. His archive consists mainly of correspondence written on an almost daily basis to his fiancée, later his wife, Dorothy, 1909-18. His letters from France depict the grim detail of life at the front line. In a letter of 5 April 1917 he talks of the “frightful waste of men, material and time it all is, all devoted to distruction when it should all be devoted to production”. [MS336 A2097/8/2/31] The collections at Southampton provide a range of material and of experiences of 20th-century warfare and the reflections they contain still speak to us as loudly today as they ever did.