Rough Poetry

I know that I’ve ranted from time to time about the truth once universally acknowledged and as often rejected that the only response to the horrors of the trenches was one of irony and horror.* So it’s in the interests of fairness and the greater good that I present Canadian economist Harold Innis’s recollections of the front presented in Chicago in 1918. Alexander John Watson reprints Innis’s speech notes in his biography, Marginal Man, noting that they constitute “a form of black poetry.”

As we had imagined it:

afraid war would end

chasing Germans with bayonets

Pleasure of going over the top

Loaded down with German helmets

As we found it:

Bully beef and hard tack

cars marked 8 horses or 40 men,

ditching ammunition,

bayonets used to toast bread and cut wood

Filling of sandbags.

Helmets to wash in

damned dull, damned duty and damned monotony of it

continual mud

continual reading of sheets

continual bread marmalade and tea

continual shelling

hide and seek warfare

With the monotony came fear

Instinctive location of deep dug-outs

Mathematical probability of shells

landing in the same place twice

Flattening against the trench wall

Drinking poisoned water

How long we were battery

eating cordite

Gradual longing

for blighty

Before these influences all men are alike





Innis’s speech, at least in this attenuated form, speaks to the deep impact of the horrors of the front, and Watson argues that Innis was seriously traumatized by his service – something which he would fight with for the rest of his life.

He also felt a great sense of fellowship with other veterans of the war. In 1940, when his colleague Frank Underhill courted public controversy in 1940 for saying that Britain’s global role was likely to diminish in the future, Innis wrote to the president of the university that “It is possibly necessary to remember that any returned man who has faced the continual dangers of modern warfare has a point of view fundamentally different from anyone who has not … Courage in the face of criticism of friend or foe means nothing to anyone requiring the courage to face imminent physical danger and death.”

Innis’s attitude to the Second World War is an interesting one. He seems not to have been opposed per se, but he did argue fairly strenuously that universities should not convert over entirely to war work and arts courses should (and their exemptions from conscription) should not be abandoned in favor of engineering and science programs that were perceived as more crucial to the war effort.

*Readers can relive the essence of the debate by reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. Canadians may find it more interesting to substitute Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble for the second book.


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