“These are men whose minds the dead have ravished”-Wilfred Owen ‘Mental Cases’
How does Wilfred Owen’s poetry, Sebastian Faulks’ s ‘Birdsong’ and R.C Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ suggest the psychological effect of war on soldiers is as devastating as the physical effect?
Journey’s End written by R.C Sheriff in written in 1928 is a play that analyses the first world war and the effect of war on different personalities.The play was an unexpected success as it is an all male production about war.They play is set in the French trenches that echoes rabbit warrens and also the tunnels into Hell of which reminds me of ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks. Therefore the play has a claustrophobic feel to it and the audience can imagine why these soldiers became close. ‘Journey’s End’ is an historically accurate play by Sheriff as he experienced this war first hand like many of his audience.
We are firstly introduced to Captain Hardy and Captain Osborne, here we learn of the other characters and are told the Captain Stanhope has adopted a fondness for whisky. This is where we are first introduced to the idea of coping mechanisms. We learn that Stanhope has not had leave for three years and has not visited home as he is afraid his family and girlfriend will see his inability to cope without alcohol. However, Stanhope’s hopes of his family not finding out of his alcohol dependency is threatened when Raleigh, an old school friend joins his company. The audience is shocked by Stanhope’s reaction and we see him lose his temper and read and potentially sensor any of Raleigh’s letters home. However Stanhope feels guilty when he reads one of Raleigh’s letters to find nothing but adoration for him. In ‘Journey’s End’ we see the different way men cope under the threat of death. Characters such as Hibbert almost make the reader feel sympathy for them as he does not fit into the brotherhood of the company and is the direct opposite to Raleigh. It is unsure whether Hibbert is a coward or mentally effected by the war as he continually tries to escape the upcoming battle by faking illness of which Stanhope sees and threatens to shoot him. However we see Stanhope sympathise with Hibbert and attempts to help him “we’ll go up together and hold each other’s hand every time a rat squeaks”. This is comforting for the audience as we are aware the penalty for desertion is death, this also shows the softer side to Stanhope as he understands what Hibbert is going through and his only way of being able to cope is by constantly being drunk.
Another coping mechanism is Osborne’s reading ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and his constant quoting throughout the play show his way of escape. “I don’t see the point in that” Trotter says of the book “Exactly, that’s the point”. This echoes Wilfred Owen’s poem “Futility” and is almost like Trotter is not speaking of the book but the War instead.
The audience are also introduced to the boredom that the soldiers had to deal with when not in battle. “A hundred and forty circles- one for each hour of six days”. This is Trotters way of passing the time to the battle of which is in six days time. This is similar to Faulk’s ‘Birdsong’ of which Stephen preforms tricks to Waire such as cutting a rat to tell the future to help pass the time.
Shocking to a modern audience, humour is a big part of ‘Journey’s End’ and is a coping mechanism of the soldiers. “War ‘s bad enough with pepper.- but war without pepper- it’s- bloody awful!” “There’s nothing worse than dirt in your tea”. The soldiers try to make light of the situation they are placed in and try suggest that dirt in your tea, or no pepper could be the tipping point for such soldiers.
Sheriff also presents the theme of the class barriers coming down as each solider is accepted no matter their background. Sheriff does this by the use of language and accents. “cheero” “blasted” are both upper-class terms whereas “hullo” and ” ‘ere” are more lower class. This is effective as we see the true effect of war on each class. However the upper classes are more usually Captains and the lower classes such as Mason are keen to serve them. Sheriff shows the beginning of the destruction of social barrier and it is accepted for people of different classes to be friends, making no difference as all men are equal at the grave.
The childish language used by Sheriff also shows the mental decline of soldiers such as Stanhope in the war. “Tuck me in, uncle” of which reduces Stanhope into a pathetic child rather than the man-in-charge. “I go sleep” This sounds as if Stanhope has reverted into being a child so much, he has become a toddler. This is shocking to the audience as this man is in charge of a company and he cannot even “tuck” himself in any more. “Kiss me” this is again childish and replied by Osborne with “Kiss you be blowed” this shows the men’s bond as he tries to make light of the situation however it must be shocking for the character to see his friend decline from a hero into a dependant man on whisky. This reminds me of Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled” of which the anonymous solider is isolated from his future of a wife and children by his injuries in the war.
R.C Sheriff also personifies bullets and grenades as “she”. “Over she comes!” this is also achieved by Wilfred Owen who uses personification to almost suggest madness “the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned”. This is effective as when watching or reading this play we are reminded of Owen’s poetry which helps us to see the true horror of the war. Sheriff also uses onomatopoeia like Wilfred Owen “Swish-swish-BANG!” This helps the audience to realise the noise of the war, as many of Sheriff’s audience had experienced this, this noise would be familiar to them.
To conclude, ‘Journey’s End’ is a play which explores the close knit friendships of the soldiers and how each cope differently. ‘Journey’s End’ is an effective play as it explores the different coping mechanisms of these soldiers such as Stanhope’s drinking, Trotter’s love for food and Osborne’s childhood book. Each character we are introduced to, perhaps with the exception of Hibbert, the audience immediately feel close to and when one dies (Raleigh / Osborne) we feel genuine sadness. Overall, ‘Journey’s End’ is a great piece of work and I’d love to see it in the theatre!
I recently watched an interesting documentary about poets in the First World War such as Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Seigfreid Sassoon, J.R.R Tolkien and Robert Graves of which were “soliders first and poets second. Together they changed how the first world war as a whole would be remembered”.
The documentary goes through the changes the poets went through from the beginning of the war when they were effected by the Propaganda that encouraged them to sign up to their realisation of the ‘futility’ of war.
The BBC drama series about the First World War is named after a line in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”.
We are first introduced to Michael who is in fact German, however we do not find that out until after the war begins and he decided to join. This eliminates the viewer having any previous conceptions and we just see a young man and not the ‘enemy’ so to speak. We then meet Tommy, by the name you can probably guess, a British man. We again do not find out his nationality until after joining the army.
Throughout the programme Tommy is fascinated by birds and draws them frequently even taking a book of the wild birds with him to the war. For me this echoes ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks,although Faulks protagonist Stephen is fearful of birds.
Throughout the series we see how difficult life was for these soldiers and witness how quickly the characters turn from boys into men overnight. At the end of episode three we see the Battle of the Somme and the huge amount of life taken there. However the main characters Tommy and Michael survive, both of their friendship groups are killed with only one other friend each. At the end of this episode there is a moving moment where the camera changes to show us faces and personal objects of those that have died during this battle, in this we see objects such as sweetheart lockets, letters home, photographs and so on. This reminds us that these men and boys were just ordinary people.
The end of episode 5 we see both characters meet in the final moments of the war as from opposite sides of the battlefield they crawl out to repair the broken barbed wire, however they see each other and at first hesitant they begin to fight, killing each other just before the war ends. Michael reaches out to Tommy as they slowly die together. We then see the characters help each other up, of which we realise are their ghosts and join their friends to walk off the battlefield as equals, both German troops and British.
A touching article about the last letter sent home by a soldier in the trenches in WW1, whose wife kept it for the rest of her life.
The letter “vividly illustrates the horror of his life at the front and of his desperate wish to be home with his young family.” Very interesting read.
‘Birdsong’ written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993 is a novel set before, during and after the First World War. The structure of the novel is split between Stephen’s life before and during the war and his granddaughter Elizabeth’s life after the war. Faulks use of the split structure is effective as it allows the reader to feel annoyed and angry towards Elizabeth for knowing so little about her grandfathers life in the war. “My God, nobody told me”. However as we have already read of Stephens experience of war we, the reader feel as if we were soldiers ourselves and are hurt by Elizabeth’s absence of knowledge of World War One.
Faulks opens ‘Birdsong’ in an idyllic and peaceful way in Amines, France 1910. “Where patches of grass and wild flowers lay beneath the branches of overhanging trees”. The opening of ‘Birdsong’ is effective as it creates a peaceful scene and focuses on the beauty of nature which contrasts later in the novel to then unnaturalness of war. The opening of ‘Birdsong’ is almost Romantic as of Faulks’ strong description of nature “chestnut tree, lilac and willow”. However there are also Gothic elements in this novel such as the Azaires ‘iron railings’ which could suggest a prison which could link to how Isabella later feels choosing between her lover and her husband, almost trapped. Also, Madame Azaire’s mental imprisonment could be interpreted as a Gothic element,she is beaten by her husband, and trapped in a unhappy abusive relationship, giving Azaire a devil like quality.
Faulks also links ‘Birdsong’ to memorable poems by Wilfred Owen such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ when Stephen shouts “Get this man’s blood off me” this reflects on the gore of war and how surreal it was for the soldiers. Faulks also links ‘Birdsong’ to ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen. “Sleep came to him like an unseen assailant” “The men in suits and flat caps, smoke rising, ale glasses held aloft”. Faulks’ use of linking the novel with Wilfred Owen helps to show the reader the horror and gore of war through techniques such as onomatopoeia also used by Wilfred Owen.
There are also many references in ‘Birdsong’ to hell and tunnelling and also gives the reader an insight into how the tunnellers were treated. “They are your sewer rats” This harsh languages makes the reader imagine a horrible, disease ridden rat digging its way down a tunnel, this could also link to the image of hell. “The smell was hard to breath” “putrefying flesh , where the latrine saps had been buried or abandoned and men preferred to inhale the toxic smoke of braziers than the smell of faeces.” This is effective as Faulks suggests the idea of hell by introducing us to ‘putrefying flesh’ and toxic smoke’ which could link to our own idea of hell.
Faulks uses the language of war throughout the novel, even in the opening chapter where we learn about a workers strike in Azaire’s business ‘retrench’. This suggests to the reader that the workers of the factory are already accustomed to war as they have always had to fight for something. The use of the language of war in the opening chapters also prepares the reader for what it to come. Faulks also uses cold, hard language to suggest the horror of war “A direct hit would obliterate all physical evidence that a man had existed”. This is effective as the reader can understand why the soldiers were badly affected by war as they are living with this constant threat. Faulks also uses medical language when describing the dead solider Tipper. “Bore no red tracery of blood vessels” Faulks uses this effectively as it adds to the horror of war as it de-personalises them, de-individualises suggesting that they are just another casualty of war and not a life. The use of Faulks language in ‘Birdsong’ help to suggest the horror of war effectively by shocking the reader. “Face remained on one side, but on the other were the ragged edge of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping on to his scorched uniform”. This also adds to the dehumanisation of war as it suggests the soldiers were stripped of emotions and have become almost accustomed to seeing images such as this.
Faulks uses imagery and vivid descriptions effectively in ‘Birdsong’ to show the reader how awful the war was. “His arms grinding in their joints”. This makes the reader feel uncomfortable as we imagine bone grinding on bone and immediately makes us uneasy. “The pupil seemed to grow blacker and wider” This is also effective in making the reader uneasy as we imagine the closeness of Stephen to the dead solider to notice his pupils dilating and shocks us of the lack of emotion in the sentence.
Faulks also reefers to religion in this novel as it suggests the loss of faith in God at the time when such horrors were happening. “I think you have a long way to go before you can call yourself a proper Christian” this could suggest how the soldiers felt they were sinners and therefore going to hell by breaking the commandment Thou Shall Not Kill. This also links to Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Exposure’ “For love of God seems dying”.
In conclusion, Faulks uses many techniques such as imagery, vivid description and language to suggest to the reader the horror of war. ‘Birdsong’ contains many different literary genres including Romanticism and Gothicism which allow the reader to imagine how surreal war was for the soldiers fighting. Faulks links this novel with differing poems by Wilfred Owen to combine the meaning to suggest the horror and to help civilians such as Faulks himself and the reader to imagine the sound and effect war had.