We all have stories told within our families that seem too unlikely to be true. The story of our maternal grandfather is one. A career soldier, he was badly wounded in the Somme and spent time being looked after by a wonderfully generous French woman. My brother has designed a beautiful and fitting tribute to our grandfather which I post above.
As the centenary of Britain's entry into what became known as the First World War approaches, we are all thinking about how war has changed - or not changed - today, and the scars that were left on so many people. I do not find it strange that so much fiction has been written about both wars: from Anne Holm's I am David to Theresa Breslin's Remembrance, both for teenagers but published nearly forty years apart, to Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front and Kate Atkinson's Life after Life.
War, already the subject of disturbing although sometimes patriotic poetry, became a necessary subject for many writers during the Great War; some, like Wilfred Owen, would never see their poetry in print. Owen wrote perhaps one of the most powerful manifestos for both poetry and the power of literature to change:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives - survives Prussia - my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders..
The above Preface to Owen's poems is compulsory reading for most 14 year olds and while it seems as if, as teachers, it is a subject to which we constantly return I think it is right that we do so. My first ever lesson on war poetry was scheduled the day that the Iraq war began. I found I could not teach Owen that day, but chose instead to talk about Kate Clanchy's wonderful poem 'War Poetry'.
Siegfried Sassoon's war diaries have been published online for the first time, today. Accessible to all, but rather difficult to deconstruct his handwriting, they nevertheless describe his journey as poet, soldier, and sufferer of what we now call post traumatic stress. You can also read about this on the BBC website. And if you wish to read a fictionalised version of Sassoon's story, look at Pat Barker's award-winning Regeneration trilogy.
And yet, we still haven't learnt the lessons that we should have learnt a long time ago.