Armistice 100

100 years ago, at 11am on 11th November 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. Today we commemorate those who lost their lives in not only the First World War, but others in conflicts both past and present.

We Will Remember Them

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With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

 

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[Looking Back] Wilfred Owen’s Neurasthenia

As tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, I thought I would repost a little something I wrote on one of the First World War’s most famous poets, Wilfred Owen. Owen was sadly killed in action just one week before the guns on the Western Front fell silent.

Wilfred-Owen

Wilfred Owen, a man whose name is synonymous with War poetry, went out onto the front line in 1917. By this point, thousands of troops were already suffering from what was known as shell-shock, a condition that had become more and more prevalent after the Somme offensive the previous year. Whilst it was a recognised condition, there were still many in high command positions within the army that believed it was simply a method of shirking.

Wilfred Owen hadn’t been in the front line for very long by the time his nerve gave way. As a second lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester Regiment, Wilfred had a position of great responsibility and believed wholeheartedly in looking out for his men – going so far as to crawl across no man’s land during heavy shell fire to check on men of his in another outpost. During the period of 13-21st April 1917, Wilfred was in the front line in Savy Wood. He fell asleep one night on a wet railway bank within the wood when a massive shell exploded close to his head and sent him flying into the air.

In a letter to his mother after the incident, Wilfred mentioned how he had been unconscious for a short time and that once he had come to, he spent the following days sheltering in “a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B/Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him.”

The officer that Wilfred mentions in this letter, Gaukroger, had been killed on 2nd April. According to Wilfred, pieces of his body lay “in various places around about.” It was this time spent with the rotting body of his comrade that was one of the main reasons Wilfred suffered with shell-shock. In another letter, now lost, Wilfred mentioned that it was his duty to leave the area at around midnight. He stated that he moved across to where the French were based and knocked on the door of their HQ to ask if all was okay. After which he was answered by a simple grunt!

The Manchester’s were finally relieved on 22nd April and made an 8 mile March to relative safety of Quiviéres, where the men were to billeted in cellars. During the rest, it soon became clear that Wilfred was suffering after his ordeal at Savy Wood. On 1st May, when Major Dempster took temporary command of the Manchester’s, a comment was made that Owen had been ‘observed to be shaky and tremulous, and his conduct and manner were peculiar, and his memory was confused.” Dempster then made an insinuation that Wilfred was cowardly – a cutting remark that hit Wilfred exceptionally hard. The very next day he was sent to the Medical Officer, who sent him to 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly which had become a specialist hospital.

To start with, Wilfred wrote home with long and cheerful letters as a way of suppressing what had happened. It may have been relief at getting away from the Front that caused him to act in such a way. There is a rather lovely story of Wilfred getting into the back of an ambulance to go to Gailly and being asked his name, only to discover that the one asking his name had been one of his school-mates from the Shrewsbury Technical. By the time Wilfred reached 13 CCS (his second visit there), the blanket name of Shell-Shock had been taken over by that of ‘neurasthenia’ – thoughts on the illness had been re-evaluated after the Somme and it was now a recognised form of mental illness. However there were many who still saw sufferers as cowards, which comes through in one of Wilfred’s most famous poems “The Dead Beat”.

He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ’em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren’t dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!

The poem itself, as can be clearly worked out, is about a soldier suffering with shell shock and the attitudes towards the conditions. It was seen by many as a way of malingering, a coward’s way out of the war. He, the soldier in the poem, is laughed at by the stretcher bearers and orderlies who believe the soldier is having them on, that he’s faking all of it. Yet there is an incredibly irony in the whole thing – a man suffering because of the horrors of war is being labelled as a dead beat, as scum. And rather than being in conflict with the German’s on the opposite side, he’s in conflict with his own men who believe him to be a coward. This poem seems to be Owen’s reaction to the way neurasthenia was thought of by those from the earlier days of the war who believed that shell shock was indeed the coward’s way out. And it is certainly a hard hitting poem.

As a sufferer of neurasthenia, Wilfred’s main symptoms were the violent dreams. These dreams were often used as imagery in his poems, something that he was encouraged to do by the doctor who treated him later at Craiglockhart. Other systems he had were trembling, a slight stammer and a feeling of suffocation – many of these symptoms, Wilfred had already experienced during his younger days. His symptoms, and the way his neurasthenia affected him can be picked up in his poetry, with his description of dreadful faces and phantasms. He also describes  things that actually happened to him, such as a gas attack and a sentry whose eyes bulged in fear whilst trapped in a dug out.

Wilfred’s doctor at Gailly was a man by the name of William Brown. Brown’s methods of treating neurasthenia were much different than other treatments at the time – he required his patients to TALK about what had happened to them and often used hypnosis as a way of getting them to talk about their experiences. He used this as a way of identifying the experience that proved to be the breaking point for his patients. Brown often also used a treatment known as abreaction, which made the patient live through their experiences again until the original event recreated itself in such a vivid manner that it often had the patient flinging himself to the floor in tears. It certainly sounds like an awful way of doing it, but it seems to have worked for many. Wilfred, however, seemed to be happier talking about his experiences than most – so much so that just one week after arriving at the CCS he was able to tell his sister that it was sheltering amongst the remains of his comrade that had caused his breakdown.

On 6th June, Wilfred and the other patients were evacuated away from Gailly and taken to a hospital near to La Havre. On the 16th June, Wilfred sailed to Southampton and then found himself at the Welsh hospital of Netley. And on 25th June, Wilfred went before a medical board where they noted that Wilfred had a highly strung temperament. He was marked as unfit for service, and issued a transfer to the hospital of Craiglockhart up in Edinburgh.

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Craiglockhart

Craiglockhart had been set up as a shell shock hospital in 1916, to help deal with the onslaught of cases after the Somme. Up until that point it had been a hydropathic hospital – the amenities of which were still available to the soldier patients, although by all accounts in poor working order.

When Wilfred first entered the hospital, after taking the overnight train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, he would have recognised a fair few of the patients who would have been with him at Gailly. One can only imagine the embarrassment of seeing old comrades there – as an officer, Wilfred was supposed to be strong. He wasn’t supposed to be seen as weak, rather he was supposed to be seen by his men as one who couldn’t be touched. Wilfred more than likely felt like a failure in such a situation.

Wilfred Owen was registered with neurasthenia upon arrival and given his first appointment with the man who would help him to work through his troubles, Dr. Brock. It would be at Craiglockhart where Wilfred Owen would write some of his best known poems and make one of the closest friends of his very short life – Siegfried Sassoon.

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Incest, Intrigue & Murder – 28th Sept

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On 28th September, I gave my first ever talk at Southampton Central Library. In it, I spoke about the myth surrounding the Borgia family. What was it that they did that was so bad? Where did the rumours come from? Were they really that bad?

I must admit, I’d been umming and aahing about cancelling the talk having been signed off from work due to a bereavement. However I dedicated the talk to my late Grandfather who had been really looking forward to watching the talk on Facebook Live, from Portugal. I’m SO glad that I didn’t cancel and, despite my nerves, it went really really well. Of course there are things I can improve on for next time – and trust me, there will be a next time!

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The Facebook Live video can be found here. (I couldn’t work out how to embed it on here…Bit of a technophobe, me)

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On This Day – 13 September (or thereabouts) 1475

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13 September 1475 is the generally accepted birth date of Cesare Borgia – although sadly for us the actual date was never written down, historians think it was between 12-14 September 1475 and April 1476.

Cesare was born to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei. Whilst his career began in the Church, following the murder of his brother he threw off his Cardinals robes and began a military career. He passed away just outside Viana on March 12, 1507. Cesare’s life was one full of drama and controversy – whilst many of his contemporaries believed him to be evil and incestuous (a viewpoint that has come down to us even today), it must be noted that he was a man of his time and we cannot judge his exploits from our own modern viewpoints.

Here’s to you, Cesare. Happy birthday.

 

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[Review] The Vatican Princess by C.W.Gortner

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For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?

With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children–his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia–each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.

Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, mulling over just how I would put it into words. As you will all know, mainly because I keep harping on about it, I’ve been delving into Borgia novels (and television adaptations) as part of my ongoing research into the Borgia family and how they are portrayed in the modern day media. I was recommended this book on twitter and set about reading it, hoping that it would be a tale that would wow me as much as Sarah Dunant’s fantastic novels.

Suffice to say I was hugely disappointed.

The story itself is a coming of age tale – it’s the story of how Lucrezia Borgia grows from a young, naive girl into a mature and confidant young woman. It goes through her trials and tribulations of growing up in the public eye and her disappointing first marriage. It goes through her relationship with her family – how she was close to her brother Cesare, and her father, Rodrigo; how she was not close with her mother or her other brother Juan. And I will give it one thing – it’s well written in many ways, making it a quick and easy read.

However, the research that went into this novel is utterly non existent in my opinion. Gortner portrays many characters who were not villains as villains in their own right. Take for example her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. We know from the history that he was a bit of a weak man who proved himself to be less than useful to the Borgia family, but he was certainly no villain. But Gortner makes him out to be an awful human being – and it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s repetitive and it started to become a chore to get through the parts of the story that involved him. And then there is the character of Vanozza who is made out to be a nasty piece of work who cares nothing at all for her family, only for herself. Her character was boring and really quite one dimensional.

And then there are the rumours of incest. Rather than trying to write a novel based on the TRUE story and how the incest was nothing more than rumour, Gortner wrote the rumours into the story. And not in a good way. Not to spoil it for anyone, but there is a rather horrendous scene in which Juan forces himself upon his sister. That and he twisted the existence of the Infans Romanus into being fathered by Juan. Many of you will probably say “It’s just a novel, what does it matter?” but in all honesty it made me feel really quite sick to read it.

Novels such as this are often stepping stones into history but, like with television dramatisations, they are often treated as fact. It doesn’t help that in the authors notes at the back, he says that Rodrigo Borgia was killed by poison. This has never been proven and in fact was more likely to be malarial fever, which was rampant in Rome at the time of his death. To make out such things are fact is incredibly sloppy.

Despite this book being well written, I would not recommend this novel at all. It turns Lucrezia’s story into a rather trashy soap opera, twisting the rumours to suit the plot of the story. It’s certainly not one I’ll be going back to.

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