Here Be Dragons

Poetry group tonight. Our once a month sit round a round table with books and wine and nibbles, reading and listening, and exchanging our thoughts. Mainly sombre thoughts tonight as it turned out. The theme, chosen by Sandra, was dragons and mythical creatures. It turns out there are an awful lot of very bad poems about dragons, many of them for children.

I like Sandra a lot; she’s a good egg, but this theme had me thinking of her less than charitably. Fortunately, among the dross there are some shining wonderful gems. Celia read a stirring extract from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the bit when the warrior is dying. It happens that Sandra studied Beowulf for A level and didn’t enjoy it one bit. We talked about how poetry was killed dead by the way we were taught it; each line gone through, dissected, the images pinned down on the page by our pencilled notes: alliteration, personification, extended simile. Shorter poems might survive as they would be read aloud, but the thunderous rolling words of Beowulf and other epics were too many, and so they were stretched, as on a mortuary slab for our scalpel pens and indifferent eyes.

I had a bit of rolling thunderous poetry myself, an extract from Paradise Lost, Book One, also studied at A level. I probably haven’t opened it for decades, but one remembered phrase sent me back to the text:

so stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay

Chain’d on the burning Lake

Now I am glad I kept my copy, rereading it opened my eyes to why someone had thought it good thing for a bunch of seventeen-year-olds to read in the first place. It has the wow factor on every page I looked at, and there are volumes of it.

Anyway.

I had the idea, and I still think it was a good one, of looking to see if Gillian Clarke, the current National Poet of Wales and a superb writer, had written anything about the Welsh Dragon, the Welsh emblem. I drew a blank but found a reference to a poem by Owen Sheers about Mametz Wood, part of the Battle of the Somme.

This is what the BBC blogsite has to say about it:

The 38th Division was comprised of soldiers from several Welsh regiments, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Welsh Regiment, young men who had been urged to enlist by the rhetoric of David Lloyd George and the thought of exciting adventures.

They were amateur soldiers, full of enthusiasm and courage but, like many of Kitchener’s New Army who fought on the Somme, they were poorly trained, ill-equipped and badly hampered by the tactics of their commanders.

The Battle of Mametz Wood began on 7 July 1916. The wood was intended – by the generals, at least – to be taken in a matter of hours. In the event the battle lasted for five days as the Germans fiercely resisted the assaults of the Welsh Division.

On the first day alone over 400 casualties were sustained. Among these were the Tregaskis brothers who originally came from Penarth. They had emigrated to Canada before the war began but, answering the call for volunteers, had returned to join up and fight for Britain.

One of the brothers was shot in the head during the first assault; the other brother went to help him and was also killed. The two men now lie buried in one of the quiet but haunting cemeteries that mark the Somme battlefield.

Over the five days that the battle raged, Mametz Wood was devastated as artillery shells fell continuously on the area. Fighting was furious, with hand to hand combat in many instances, as men battled for every inch and yard of ground. The poet Robert Graves fought in the battle and, having gone back into the wood once the battle was finally over, wrote:

“It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”
Casualty figures for the Welsh Division amounted to 46 officers and 556 other ranks killed. When the wounded and those listed as “missing” – men blown to pieces or buried alive by shell blasts – were counted the total number of casualties was 3,993. And that is not counting the numbers of German dead which must have been somewhat similar.

Yet despite achieving their objectives and driving the Germans back to their second line of defences, the Welsh Division was never given real recognition for its achievement. There was even an accusation that the division had failed to advance with enough spirit – in other words the men were accused of cowardice.

So not a lot of fun then.

Belatedly, a memorial to the Welsh soldiers of the 38th Division has been erected. It is in the form of a red Welsh Dragon, facing the Wood and tearing at barbed wire, on top of a three-metre plinth. The dragon was made by Welsh sculptor and blacksmith David Petersen, and the money was raised from a public fund-raising appeal. Here’s a picture, courtesy of the BBC:

Mametz wood Memorial, courtesy of bbcimg.co.uk

I still didn’t have the poem, but on a vist last week to one of our local libraries in search of something else entirely, I drifted over to the poetry section and found Owen Sheers collection Skirrid Hill.

Here it is:

Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers

For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back to itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.

This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.

It’s 98 years this week since those men died. The Somme, a battle that continued for months, has become synonymous with wholesale slaughter, the loss of life on a scale that defies imagination. No one who fought in it and survived is alive today. We need poems like this to keep the reality of this battle alive, the cost to the men, their families, their communities. Otherwise, we risk it being consigned to history books, where bored teenagers will annotate the key facts, ready to answer questions on exam day, but without an understanding of the impact it had on our collective humanity.

Lest we forget indeed.

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12 thoughts on “Here Be Dragons

  1. So much poetry and storytelling is ruined by the way it is taught. There is no immersion in the words or letting the cadence sing to you anymore. Just a load of bunkem about what the writer meant…like they even have a clue.

  2. Wow. WWOne poetry continues to hit me where it hurts. Thanks. The huge lesson that still is unlearned, all A levels and poetry dissection aside.

    • It was coincidence that our meeting should be the anniversary of the battle, and somehow the poem had more resonance for me because of that fact. I can recommend the whole of Skirrid Hill. You may have to treat yourself.

    • I do wish you would start a similar group with some friends. I think it would be fascinating to see what poems each group came up with on the same themes! Next month’s theme is weather.
      Just a hint. Btw, I may be making a trip across the ditch in the next few weeks, flights and cousins permitting.

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