Sometimes, when I encounter members of my seminar on the Great War at the end of term, I can’t help thinking of Wilfred Owen’s Mental Cases, especially if it happens to be in the evening.
“Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,(…)
– These are men whose minds the dead have ravished”
Okay, the analogy is a stretch. I almost wrote ‘wildly overblown’. The modern college student faces nothing more serious than a burst of term papers, a packet of exams, a dose of sleep deprivation? Not much of a comparison to the sufferings of those Owen lamented with such haunting and beautiful poesy. Their bursts were Maxim bullets. Their packets shrapnel. And their doses gas. But, here’s the thing. After fourteen weeks studying the memoirs and poetry, the letters, photographs, paintings, films, and novels of those purgatorial shadows, my students sometimes feel as if their minds have been …. not ravished exactly, but certainly beaten-down. Too much horror. Too much suffering. Even at second or third hand it gets to them.
That’s when I know it’s time for a little comic relief. It’s not the first thing we associate with WWI – unless we come to the Great War via The Black Adder Goes Forth. But it is there for the finding. Bairnsfather’s comics (Figments from France http://www.brucebairnsfather.org.uk/index_files/page0003.htm) provide a famous example. Then there’s The Wipers Times. (For more see: http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/the-wipers-times-and-wodehouse/)
But for an even broader sense of how deeply humour pervaded soldiers’ lives in and out of the trenches, I can recommend Brophy and Partridge’s Dictionary of Tommies Songs and Slang. It’s a monument to the power of humour, of wordplay and irony, as mechanisms for coping with fear, boredom, alienation, and oppression.
P.S. Stay tuned – I’m heady back to France and Belgium in a few days time. On this occasion with students! Watch this space to see how their already strained emotions cope with battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials.