SEPTEMBER 16, 2016
AMONG THE EXEMPLARY British poet-soldiers of the Great War, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden were also memoirists. Young officers of valor, they reflected on their service years after the war ended. Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929), and Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928) endure as touchstones of witness, disillusionment, and preserving grace.
Later, Blunden was the tutor at Oxford for Keith Douglas, who became the best poet of World War II. Douglas wrote Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), his account of men and tanks in North Africa, so close in time and space to the desert battlegrounds that it pulses with ebullient immediacy. He became the answer to his own question: “Why are there no poets like [Wilfred] Owen and Sassoon who lived with the fighting troops and wrote of their experience while enduring them?”
Today, despite the evident verve of Douglas’s voice, despite the fact that his idiom marks the beginning of our age, his story and his work are little known in the United States. My recollection of a poem he wrote at 21 as he shipped out to the Middle East, “Remember me when I am dead / and simplify me when I’m dead,” has inspired this appreciation.
Keith Castellain Douglas was born in 1920. After the family was abandoned by his father (who had been awarded the Military Cross), Douglas relied on his mother’s love and dedication, as well as her durability under hard economic circumstances. His boyhood, school, and university days were steeped in army play-acting and the Officer Training Corps, although its ethos of discipline made it an unlikely fit for a young man who liked to speak his mind, even to schoolmasters.
Alamein begins with a voice of the 1940s, in the spirit of what the author’s biographer, Desmond Graham, calls his “‘little boy’ mentality.” Left behind as a camouflage officer in Palestine, Douglas couldn’t persuade the bureaucracy to send him to the front. So he took off in a jeep to join his tank regiment in Egypt, not only without orders but “in direct disobedience of orders.” Instead of his being absent without leave, he became present without leave. His arrival onto the battlefield, the “central stage” of the war he sought, gives us a sense of his sheer nerve, in which he himself took great pride: “My batman was delighted with this manoeuvre. ‘I like you, sir,’ he said. ‘You’re shit or bust, you are.’ This praise gratified me a lot.”
So much for the character of the narrator. As to his powers of observation and the style of his writing, one should note that Blunden had sent one of Douglas’s early poems to T. S. Eliot, introducing “one of our Oxford poets [with] a considerable reputation here alike as a writer and as an artist.” Eliot thought that Douglas “definitely had an ear.” And as any reader of Douglas quickly learns, he definitely had an eye.
Alamein opens with a gloss on the narrator’s point of view, on the artistic sensibility that accompanies his soldierly dash. Douglas saw “battles partly as an exhibition […] like a visitor from the country going to a great show, or like a child in a factory” before whom “dance the bright and black incidents.” As an artist he “looked […] for something decorative, poetic or dramatic.”
Being in a tank brought both “mobility,” the only element Douglas considered different from the battle experience of the Great War soldiers, and the point of view of “a camera obscura or a silent film — in that since the engine drowns all other noises except explosions, the whole world moves silently.” And silence, as he put it, “is a strange thing to us who live: we desire it, we fear it, we worship it, we hate it.”
Set against our memory of descriptions of the Great War terrain in France — the mud; the wetness; the louse- and rat-ridden, shell-shattered landscape; the farm land turned to trenches and tunnels — Douglas’s descriptions of the desert suddenly bursting with flora are shockingly decorative:
Sometimes the surface of the desert […] was thick with flowers which changed the ridges and hollows whose sandy colour had for weeks been relieved only by stones, the hiding places of scorpions — or the dead grey spouts of camelthorn — into undulating distances of blue-green. The sweet scent of the flowers would come up to your nostrils even in a tank turret, moving along; it could overcome all the odours of machines.
Yet the desert takes its toll:
In some areas flies were almost unbearable—even one Egyptian fly can take up all one man’s attention. They return persistently to the attack on eyes, mouth and nostrils, and are devilishly agile. Nine in every twelve men were covered with inflamed, swollen, and painful sores, on hands, faces, or legs, which took weeks or months to heal and left deep, red scars.
Douglas shows relish for life in the tank and steeps us effectively in chaotic battle scenes of Crusaders careering and under fire. We are at the shoulder of the tank commander who has a “panorama of battle” linked to the “coloured diagram on a map […] the position, the route, the objectives, of each Division and Brigade.” The “earphones of his wireless set hang round his neck, or at noisier moments over his ears,” as he gets “a continuous account of the battle […] with the most vivid, inimitable running commentary in the world.”
The poet’s ear for radio talk reveals the richness of “mysterious symbolic language” and introduces us to the regiment’s officers — landed gentry with annual legacy income, who had formerly ridden, hunted, and played cricket on each other’s estates. Siegfried Sassoon’s thinly disguised Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) depicts such characters, who are even more out of place 20 years later in a fully mechanized war. Douglas describes them in his poem “Aristocrats” as “this gentle / obsolescent breed of heroes.”
Douglas said he could “best conjure […] the actual atmosphere of battle by repeating [the] phrases” these men uttered over the wireless radio. They “have two main sources of allusion, horses and cricket. […] ‘Kick 2 Ack,’ says someone who has broken a track. ‘I shall need the farrier, I’ve cast a shoe.’” On another occasion, Colonel Piccadilly Jim — who believes the men have “good wireless discipline,” just as long as they “keep off the air when [he] is speaking, while he interrupts, dilates or ignores messages, entirely” — asks, “King 2, now that that chap has retired to the pavilion, how many short of a full team are you?” Douglas brings this chatter, the aplomb of the commander, the chaps wired together by radio and fate, and the fire and death of battle into his poem “Gallantry”:
The colonel in a casual voice
spoke into the microphone a joke
which through a hundred earphones broke
into the ears of a doomed race.
It was a brave thing the colonel said,
but the whole sky turned too hot
and the three heroes never heard what
it was, gone deaf with steel and lead.
In his biography, Graham explains how Douglas’s background set him apart from the other officers: having been educated at Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, a school known for classlessness and intellectual excellence, he had no history — and little in common — with the Nottinghamshire men of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. But, thanks to his personality, he was also, writes Graham, “incapable of the one role which might have brought him comfort in the regiment — anonymity.”
For all that, or perhaps because of it, Douglas’s sizing up of his fellow officers, especially the senior ones, was remarkably acute, worthy of the best novelist; his seismograph was tuned to the idiosyncratic, the telling gesture. Many passages in Alamein bring to mind the compressed vignettes in Goodbye to All That, which Robert Graves called “caricature scenes.”
Writing of Sweeney Todd, the Transport officer, Douglas portrays him as “the true bull in a china shop. Tactless, goodhearted, and perfectly unimaginative, he could infuriate more people in less time than anyone else I know. But all this without the least ill-will towards them, and without a suspicion that all is not well.” Acknowledging “complete and unselfish sincerity” in Todd’s devotion to the regiment, and spelling out what he knows best — “how to use an axe or a gun […] crops, blood sports, [and] livestock,” and noting his “great love for the English countryside,” Douglas also makes you feel Todd’s agony “[w]hen someone makes a humorous remark which escapes him”: “he looks as unhappy as a great dog who is being laughed at.”
Of another cast is Guy, the Major, second in command, and, in civilian life, a scion of the Player cigarette family. His personal elegance is matched by the elegance and insight with which Douglas depicts him:
He was fantastically rich and handsome, and appeared, as indeed he was, a figure straight out of the nineteenth century. He was charming and entirely obsolete. […] His slim, beautifully clad figure remained among our dirty greasy uniforms as a symbol of the regiment’s former glory. […] His moustache was an exact replica of those worn by the heroes of the Boer War, his blue eye had a courageous twinkle, and he had the slim strong hands of a mannered horseman […] he was not only quite fearless but reckless as well, and would not consider a reconnaissance complete until he had driven over and had a look at the enemy’s faces in the jeep.
The view of the enemy is always a key element in war literature. Douglas had respect for the Germans, was decent toward prisoners, and eschewed unnecessary killing of the unarmed, claiming to “lack the true ferocity of Battle School Instructors and armchair critics.” He is, however, caustic toward the Italians, who, in his view, combine “underhand cruelty with cowardice, and servility when [the British] caught up with them. The Italian attitude of ‘we never want to fight’ was true enough, with its corollary: ‘We only wanted to tie bombs to wine-bottles and corpses, and leave them for you to find.’”
Of the first dead German he saw, Douglas writes: “There were no signs of violence. As I looked at him, a fly crawled up his cheek and across the dry pupil of his unblinking right eye. I saw that a pocket of dust had collected in the trough of the lower lid.” The memoirs of poets open roads that lead to poems. Here we find the seed of one of Douglas’s finest verses, “Vergissmeinnicht,” where the lover and the killer are one in life and death:
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
In a copybook gothic script.
We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
After victories in the North African campaign, healing from wounds first in the hospital in Cairo then at home, Douglas was promoted to Captain in 1943. When offered a job as a military journalist that same year, he replied that he would much rather go into battle again: “I should probably want to go — not that I like the action that much, but I don’t see why my friends should get blown up while I drop out. […] A conscience is a nuisance. […] I have already been blown up once, but it didn’t larn me, unfortunately.’”
He obtained permission for the publication of Alamein from his new colonel. Piccadilly Jim had been killed and Douglas wrote of him that he “had been a brave man and a colonel of whom we could be proud. Of whom, I discovered, somewhat to my own surprise, I had been proud myself. He was an institution: it seemed impossible that in a moment a metal splinter had destroyed him.”
On June 9, 1944, three days after the Normandy Landings, Douglas led a tank troop into France. Ted Hughes, who found Douglas “fitted to his war just as Owen seems fitted to his,” described the soldier-poet’s death in an introduction to an edition of Douglas’s poems: “a mortar fragmentation bomb exploded in a tree above him, he was killed by a splinter so fine that no wound showed on his body.”
Douglas was not long past a schoolboy when he went off to fight and die. We see this in the way he wrote about the domestic side of tank life, the cooking and brewing up, the joy of captured loot, including a Luger, a Beretta, and the dandy touches of additional uniform from German shirts and handkerchiefs. At the same time, the poise of his writing and the sharpness of his observations speak of early maturity. He was, in a sense, still in the “sorting-out” phase of life; the intense elements within him, “the cynic and the lyric,” a poet of war and love, had not yet settled into balance. Decades after his death, we cannot simplify him.