first world war trenches

guys, we need to talk about eowyn

So I get really narky when people pull the whole ‘oh Eowyn’s storyline came to such a sucky ending; she was really cool going around killing orcs and Witch-Kings and then she got shoved into a traditional girly role by marrying Faramir and becoming a healer’ thing, because no. No-no-no-no-no. Not only does that stray dangerously into the territory of ‘women only have worth if they’re doing traditionally blokey things’, but that misses almost the entire point of Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was in the trenches in the first world war, right? He got all that ‘for death and glory’ shit shoved down his throat, that was the whole point about the war, it was when so many people came to see how awful and misleading all the propaganda about winning glory through violence and death was. And Tolkien’s work completely shows that: it’s why the hobbits, who’ve never craved power or battle the way men do, are the heroes of the book; it’s why strong men like Aragorn and Faramir are shown to be lovers of peace rather than war. It’s why the quote - but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory; I love only that which they defend – is so poignant and beautiful, when seen in the context of all Tolkien had gone through. He’d seen all but one of his closest friends die in an utterly pointless war; the prevalent message in his books is ‘if you’re going to have that many people die, let it be for something worth dying for.’ (Like defending your home from the lord of all darkness, for example.)

And Eowyn might be a fantastic female character, but she’s also got so much development to go through, and she’s by no means perfect. I find it really interesting that when Eowyn talks to Aragorn about wanting to go off and fight she never really actually mentions protecting her people, but speaks about wanting to ‘face peril and battle’, and to do ‘great deeds’. And it’s not that Eowyn doesn’t want to protect her people, because of course she does, but she’s also got such a driving motivation within her to do glorious and fell deeds simply for the sake of valour and renown. It’s one of her defining features, having an attitude that got so many young men killed in the war and which, obviously, Tolkien would have been very wary of.

(Also, I think, there’s so much in Eowyn that wants to prove herself to be more than ‘a mere woman’; because twice in that conversation she asserts that she’s no mere ‘dry-nurse’ or ‘serving-woman’, but a member of the house of Eorl and therefore capable of greater things. There’s almost this slight sense of Eowyn considering herself more than ‘just’ a domesticated woman that I sometimes get from her in the books? Which is very sad - the idea of Eowyn having less regard for others of her sex who do mind the house or raise the children - and why I so love that ‘I am no man’ moment in RotK. Eowyn’s no longer hiding herself, or dismissing fellow women as the weaker sex, but acknowledging and embracing the fact that women in all their forms can fuck you up.)

And then we reach the Houses of Healing, and Eowyn yearning for death in battle just like her Uncle Theoden, and basically buying into that whole world war one ethos that Tolkien would have considered so poisonous. Which is why her friendship and courtship with Faramir is so fricking beautiful. Remember that quote I wrote earlier? That’s from Faramir. He’s not backing down from conflict, he’s in no way less of a ‘real man’ than anyone else; he’s just saying there needs to be more to the fight than simply having a fight. There needs to be a reason; something worth fighting for. Eowyn recognises that Faramir is a good man in every sense of the word: he’s strong and valiant, but he doesn’t fight simply to prove himself or for the sake of winning glory, he fights for other people. And Faramir gently challenges Eowyn on her idolisation of battle-glory and encourages her not to scorn gentleness or peace, and he’s so freaking good for her.

(Seriously. Can we just stop for a moment and think about how wonderful Eowyn and Faramir are for each other: Faramir encouraging Eowyn to turn towards life and healing and openness while never denying her strength or courage, and Eowyn giving Faramir the validation and security he never got after so many years of an awful relationship with his father? I honestly don’t know why I don’t get all giddy about these two more often, because they make the very best otp.)

And the result of the departure of the Shadow and her friendship with Faramir is Eowyn’s decision that ‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’

I think that last bit is so important because I’m certain that Tolkien doesn’t mean for Eowyn to immediately pack up her sword and shield and become a good girl sitting at home with her knitting and waiting for the men to return home after the fight – after all, she’s going to be the wife of the Steward of Gondor and there’s a lot of mess to clean up after the War of the Ring. Eowyn’s probably still going to find herself defending hearth and home from time to time. But the important thing is that she’s no longer defining herself simply by the doing of valiant deeds; she’ll no longer compare herself to the great warriors of her house and feel lacking simply because she hasn’t killed as many men. Most importantly, she’s not going to take joy only in the songs of the slaying, in destruction and death. Tolkien was all about healers symbolising life and rebirth, and Eowyn’s decision to become one – to aid in the preservation of life rather than the taking of it – is so beautiful. I don’t think Tolkien ever wrote Eowyn’s ending to make her reclaim her ‘lost femininity’; I think it’s a lovely way of adding to the ever-present theme in Lord of the Rings of hope and frailty and healing and friendship over glory and battle and strife.

Two armed German soldiers wearing heavy coats posing in a trench during World War 1, location unknown.

Source: University of Kentucky.

Synopsis For Doctor Who Christmas Special Released

The BBC has released a synopsis for the upcoming ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas episode ‘Twice Upon A Time’:

“Two Doctors stranded in a forbidding snowscape, refusing to face regeneration. And a British army captain seemingly destined to die in the First World War, but taken from the trenches to play his part in the Doctor’s story. This is the magical last chapter in the Twelfth Doctor’s epic adventure. He must face his past to decide his future. And the Doctor will realise the resilience of humanity, discovering hope in his darkest frozen moment. It’s the end of an era. But the Doctor’s journey is only just beginning.”

‘Twice Upon A Time’ will air Christmas Day on BBC One/BBC America

To Any Dead Officer

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?
For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.

You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.

Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”

So when they told me you’d been left for dead
I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
“Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)

Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

SIEGFRIED SASSOON

Snipers

“We have been trekking hard all these last days. Heat and dust terrible… We got in a wood and were surrounded by Germans. The Germans are very fond of wood fighting and detail snipers to get up trees. We lost considerably including nine officers.” Letter from Lt. Neville Woodroffe during the Mons Retreat, 1914.

Snipers can trace their lineage to hunters who began using rifled firearms that could fire accurately at longer rangers. In the North American colonies, settlers adapted the rifle to warfare, and riflemen were used as snipers by both sides during the American Revolutionary War, and by the British in the Napoleonic Wars. During the Second Boer War, Boer marksman with accurate Mauser rifles took a heavy toll on regular British forces. In response, the British formed the first professional unit of trained snipers, the Lovat Scouts, using telescopic rifles and wearing camouflage suits. Their commander said of them that they were “half wolf and half jackrabbit.“

A British officer shoots from a camouflaged position.

The trench warfare of the First World War suited the sniper perfectly. At the beginning of the war, sniping was an amateur affair, practiced mostly by officers used to hunting from before the war. Armed with personal hunting rifles, sharpshooters spent their spare time trying to pick off enemy soldiers. Only the Imperial German Army issued out telescopic sites, and soon the trained German snipers developed a fearsome reputation in the Entente armies.

In response, the British and French set about professionalizing their own marksmen. Big-game hunters like Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard worked hard to develop sniper tactics to counter the Germans. All armies set up training schools, and following in the Germans’ wake the British and French began issuing standard-issue scoped rifles. Optics underwent significant development; a major example was the “periscope” rifle that used sloped mirrors to allow soldiers to fire without revealing themselves above the trench parapet.

A British soldier at Gallipoli tries to lure Turkish snipers into firing; his friends don’t seem amused.

As snipers improved in quality, the danger they posed increased. Working in pairs, snipers were expected to memorize the layout of the land in front of them, noticing any subtle change. They wore camouflage and shot from disguised or armored positions to remain safe themselves while they watched for any sudden enemy movement. Even a man who exposed himself for a fraction of a second might become a casualty. The most valuable targets were officers, signalers trying to lay communication lines, and soldiers bringing up rations from field kitchens.

A camouflaged British marksman next to a fake tree he used as a platform.

The sniper war became a daily feature of life on the front line.  Soldiers developed methods to cope. Robert Graves remembered being troubled by one particular German sniper, but he found a response: “Later we secured an elephant-gun that could send a bullet through enemy loopholes and if we failed to locate the loop-hole of a persistent sniper, we tried to dislodge him with a volley of rifle-grenades, or even by ringing up the artillery.”

The randomness of death scared troops. It even created one superstition - never light a cigarette three times from the same match. “The sniper sees the first light, he hones in on the second, and when he sees the third he takes the shot.”

Anzac troops use a periscope rifle on Gallipoli.

Soldiers hated snipers and a captured one could expect no mercy. Nevertheless, sniping had a mental toll of its own. Some treated it like hunting, but others were disturbed by its oddly personal nature. R. A. Chell remembered feeling so during his first try at it:

“After about fifteen minutes quiet watching - with my rifle in a ready position - I saw a capless bald head come up behind the plate. The day was bright and clear and I hadn’t the slightest difficulty in taking a most deliberate aim at the very centre of that bright and shiny plate - but somehow I couldn’t press the trigger: to shoot such a ‘sitter’ so deliberately in cold blood required more real courage than I possessed. After a good look round he went down and I argued with myself about my duty. My bald-headed opponent had been given a very sporting chance and if he were fool enough to come up again I must shoot him unflinchingly. I considered it my duty to be absolutely ready for that contingency. After about two minutes he came up again with added boldness and I did my duty. I had been a marksman before the war and so had no doubt about the instantaneousness of that man’s death. I felt funny for days and the shooting of another German at 'stand-to’ the next morning did nothing to remove those horrid feelings I had.”

The Creeping Barrage

The mighty roar of the Prussian guns!

Infantry is considered the “queen of battle”, but artillery is the king, and at no time was this more true than during the First World War. Artillery blasted enemies out of their heavily defended trenches and bunkers, leaving the infantry to occupy destroyed and unmanned enemy positions. At least, this was the theory. In practice, even heavy artillery bombardments failed to kill enemy soldiers sheltering in deep dugouts. In 1915, the artillery would shell enemy positions for hours before an infantry assault, but cease right as the troops went over the top. The lift in artillery warned enemies that an attack was coming, giving them time to man their positions. And too often, the attacking infantrymen left without artillery support were gunned down in the hundreds.

The creeping barrage was an evolution in artillery tactics to provide better support to the infantry. First practiced by the British on the Somme and the French at Verdun, it integrated the preliminary bombardment and the infantry assault in a new way. Normally in 1914 and 1915, the artillery would shift to targets far behind the enemy lines when its own infantry hopped the bags, leaving it without direct battlefield support. The creeping barrage, contrarily, moved just ahead of the infantry attack.

The idea what to give a curtain of fire directly in front of the artillery, slowly moving forward as they advanced behind it. Just meters ahead of the infantry, the artillery shells provided a literal shield against bullets, while destroying barbed wire and minefields as the infantry crept forward just meters behind it.

In practice, this required exceptional skill on the part of the gunners and coordination with the officers leading the infantry assault. If the artillery moved forward too quickly, it left the infantry helpless - C.S. Lewis remembered one such experience in 1918: “barrage moved too quick, leaving the enemy free to open up a devastating machine-gun fire on the target they had been waiting for.“

On the other hand, if the artillery moved too slowly, it could fall on top of its own side. In fact, this was viewed as the preferable option. The French army lost at least casualties in the six figures to its own artillery during the war. Just another grim reality for the World War One front-line soldier. As a general rule of thumb, the artillery moved forward at 50 meters per minute to give the best support. If done properly, it shielded the advancing troops while destroying enemy positions just enemy troops manned them. 

5

A variety of First World War trench clubs. The top club sporting the words “Patent Applied For”, an example of soldier humour.

Although the First World War is generally thought of as a technological war, primarily about artillery and machine guns there was a significant amount of hand to hand combat due to the need for infantry to capture and hold trench networks. Troops on both sides of the conflict devised a variety of brutal and effective weapons, most commonly spiked clubs. They were used to great effect during trench raids, when soldiers were unable to fire weapons for fear of alerting nearby enemies.

bbc.co.uk
BBC - Casting announced for BBC Four’s Queers - Media Centre
A stellar cast is to appear in BBC Four’s Queers. Ben Whishaw, Alan Cumming, Rebecca Front, Russell Tovey, Gemma Whelan, Ian Gelder, Kadiff Kirwan and Fionn Whitehead will star in eight 15 minute monologues.

A stellar cast is to appear in BBC Four’s Queers. Ben Whishaw, Alan Cumming, Rebecca Front, Russell Tovey, Gemma Whelan, Ian Gelder, Kadiff Kirwan and Fionn Whitehead will star in eight 15 minute monologues.

Curated and directed by Mark Gatiss, Queers sees eight new and established writers respond to the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised homosexual acts between men. The series will be broadcast as part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season this summer.

Taking in 1957’s Wolfenden Report, the HIV crisis and the 1967 Sexual Offence Act itself, the monologues will explore some of the most poignant, funny, tragic and riotous moments of British gay history and the very personal rites-of-passage of British gay men through the last one hundred years.

In The Man On The Platform, Ben Whishaw (London Spy, Spectre) returns from the trenches of the First World War, whilst a hundred years later, Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) reflects on gay marriage in Something Borrowed.

More Anger finds Russell Tovey (Him And Her, Being Human) playing a gay actor in the 1980s, and Rebecca Front (War And Peace, Humans) contemplates her very particular marriage in Missing Alice.

Gemma Whelan (Game Of Thrones, Decline And Fall), Kadiff Kirwan (Black Mirror, Chewing Gum), Ian Gelder (Snatch, Game Of Thrones) and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, HIM) appear respectively in A Perfect Gentleman, Safest Spot In Town, I Miss The War and A Grand Day Out, each examining the very different attitudes and social changes in gay men’s lives over the century.

The plays are written by Matthew Baldwin, Jon Bradfield, Michael Dennis, Keith Jarrett, and Gareth McLean, who are writing for television for the first time, alongside established screenwriters Jackie Clune, Brian Fillis and Gatiss himself.

The 8x15 mins series was commissioned by Cassian Harrison and Mark Bell, Head of Commissioning, Arts and is made by BBC Studios. The Executive Producer is Pauline Law.

Queers is being produced in partnership with The Old Vic Theatre who will stage all eight of the monologues in July, in the run up to the television transmission. Tickets for the live staging are on sale now, with casting to be announced.