“How does one define cowardice?”
Asks Senior Goldsmiths lecturer Richard Shannon, (pictured right), as he prepares to read selected poetry at the University’s Postcards From Gallipoli event that took place on Monday October 19th. The event commemorated hundred years since the death of Goldsmiths’ first Warden, William Loring, who died during the campaign.
“To stand up against the war, in those times, would be an act of extraordinary courage.”
Drawing from his own experiences in the British Army, and with the benefit of a hundred years of hindsight, Richard Shannon is well suited to read a selection of poems from the Gallipoli campaign. Not only is he a graduate in English Literature from New College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, his emotional involvement in the subject is heightened by the fact that his own maternal grandfather, though estranged from the family, fought in the Battle of the Dardanelles. His grandfather was one of the lucky ones who actually survived the calamitous eight-month campaign of 1915, that led to the combined death of approximately half a million soldiers.
Here he reads an untitled poem by Patrick Shaw-Stewart, which has come to be known as Achilles in the Trench due to its many Iliad references. Like Richard Shannon, Shaw-Stewart also studied at Oxford, where he excelled in the Classics. Much was expected of the poet and legendary genius.
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die,
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.
Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.
But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.
O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen
Why must I follow thee?
Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.
Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest and I know not –
So much the happier am I.
I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.
Though the tone of Achilles in the Trench is heightened by its many classical references, there is no attempt to glorify war. Shaw-Stewart expresses his fear of a futile death and asks:
“Fatal second Helen
Why must I follow thee?“
His words are, of course, made all the more poignant by his death in December 1917, aged just 29 years old.
In this extract of an interview with LMM News, Richard Shannon considers Shaw-Stewart’s poem in its wider historical context and how it speaks to his own personal experiences.
A MAN OF FEW WORDS
He might have dreamt of England
and some soft hospital bed. I don’t
know, and we just waited. And then
a sniper’s bullet holed his head.
He looked at me reproachfully and barked
Such visceral sentiments from a bloodied battlefield represent a generation forced to endure a Second World War. The guttural tone is not only in stark contrast to the poetry of the Gallipoli Campaign, it is also presents the antithesis of the privileged worlds and words that Shaw-Stewart inhabited before the war. The language clashes with the idealistic sentiments of William Loring at the start of the First World War.
Loring might be considered a product of his time: he couldn’t foresee the enormous casualties that were to come when he wrote in The Goldsmithian:
“Better far that his shattered body lie buried in its blanket than be the vehicle of a tainted soul. Better that he die brave than that he live a coward.”
From a contemporary perspective, this statement could be regarded as potentially controversial, as discussed in this next extract where Richard Shannon explores notions of cowardice and conscientious objectors.
In this next extract, Mr Shannon describes how his own grandfather, Ernest Taylor (see picture below), would have been similarly idealistic about recruitment. He then considers the harsh realities of such a prolonged conflict and the danger of political rhetoric.
An excerpt from The Conscientious Objector poem, credited to E.W.
“Fool” we called him, and “Coward”
Perhaps it is all his due,
But no word of ours can swerve him
From the things he holds as true.