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Postcards from France: Paul Fussell and the Field Service “Form-letter”

By Jean Cannon

May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.

Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.

The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.

 

In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period.  This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.

Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Related content:

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes

 

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In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

By Elana Estrin

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Edmund Blunden’s souvenir World War I map: St. Julien, Belgium, July 31, 1917

By Bob Taylor

Within the Ransom Center’s extensive collection of papers of British author and poet Edmund Blunden (1896–1974) is a group of printed maps. These maps came into Blunden’s possession during his service as an officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment during World War I. Most of the maps are British Ordnance Survey trench maps detailing various sectors in southwestern Belgium in the vicinity of Ypres and are what one might expect to find among the papers of an officer veteran of a conflict. One, however, differs in that it was acquired by then Lt. Blunden in the village of St. Julien under unusual circumstances.

On this map he has written “German map brought back by me from pillbox near St. Julien in the battle of July 31, 1917.”

That day was the first of the campaign known as Third Ypres or, by a name having special resonance, as Passchendaele. The village of St. Julien is about four miles northeast of Ypres on the road to Langemarck and Poelkapelle and was one of the first objectives taken by British troops in a campaign intended to build upon the success of the earlier battle of Messines Ridge, fought the previous June to the immediate south of Ypres.

As is so often the case in war, the early expectations of success eluded the planners of the offensive. Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s belief the that German army was near collapse proved illusory, and the hope of achieving a decisive breakthrough faded as the campaign wore on. Eventually the capture of the village of Passchendaele, seven miles east of Ypres, and a low ridge just beyond was settled on as a realistic culmination. When Canadian troops took the heights on November 9, 1917, the campaign came to an end, and an Allied victory was declared.

The map Blunden saved from the German bunker is a commercially published map in a scale of 1:300,000, issued by the firm of L. Ravenstein of Frankfurt am Main. Despite its title of Kriegskarte von Belgien und angrenzendem Frankreich (War Map of Belgium and Bordering Areas of France), it appears to be an undated wartime reissue of a conventional prewar political map. It has been updated by overprinting in red indicating “fremde Festungen” (foreign fortresses) and “ungefähre Frontlinie” (approximate frontlines).

The Blunden copy has further been cut into panels and mounted on cloth backing. It has one correction to the “front lines” done in graphite pencil, and, oddly for a map apparently in use in late July 1917, the area from Messines to Wytschaete taken by British forces in the struggle for Messines Ridge nearly two months earlier still appears on the map as a German salient.

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