The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 ensued a feeling of euphoria in Britain. Many Britain’s felt it was their moral duty to participate in the war because of ‘its pledge to Belgium and its duty to destroy Prussianism in a war to end war’. The declaration of the war was greeted with enthusiasm and jingoism. Streets filled with celebration and national pride, many with the belief of ‘it’ll be all over by Christmas’. The reason for excitement and support of the Great War is that at the time Britain had the strongest navy in the world, it was a time when Britain ‘ruled the waves’. Both Rudyard Kipling and Siegfried Sassoon initially were in support of the Great War. Rudyard Kipling was a popular writer and poet, in the peak of his fame he used his name and influence to get his son enlisted in the war despite being rejected for his bad eyesight. In 1914, endorsing the Great War Kipling wrote a poem called ‘All That We Have And Are’ ending with “What stands if Freedom fall? /Who dies if England live?”. Siegfried Sassoon shared this same eagerness, on the day of declaration he had already enlisted to fight in the war motivated by patriotism and national pride. Many young men including Rudyard’s Kipling’s son and Siegfried Sassoon thought of the war as an adventure, they saw it as their responsibility and duty to go out and fight for their country. This feeling of national pride and responsibility was echoed across Britain, especially among middle class young men.
Patriotism and Support for joining up
In David Haig’s ‘my boy jack’, Kipling is very much in support of the war and having his son Jack participate even though jack himself is hesitant.
Carrie: Do you think its fair to encourage him?
Rudyard: I would think it very unfair if I didn’t. Within a year, by the end of 1914, we shall be fighting for civilization itself, one wouldn’t want him to miss an opportunity to be part of that. (Act 1, page 9)
Kipling is determined to have his son fight in the war, he believes it will be an important historical moment for Britain, therefore wanting his son to be a part of British history. From the exchange Kipling is having with his wife, it is almost as if Kipling himself wants to be the one fighting for his country. However, unable to do so due to his age he wants to live this historical moment through his son. Similarly, Siegfried Sassoon volunteered to go fight in the war for Britain. Sassoon wrote many poems before, during and after the war, although Absolution was his first complete war poem.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free. (Absolution, Siegfried Sassoon)
In this poem Sassoon is romanticizing war, this is demonstrating the sense of idealistic views of war held by many people at the time. Sassoon believed that war was a positive because fighting is what gave him freedom. These views held by Sassoon before he himself got to experience the war himself exposes his naivety of what war would be like. This sense of naivety and patriotism is echoed by Kipling in the play. ‘…a people whose soul is as strong and old as a British Oak’. The over-confidence demonstrated by both Kipling and Sassoon stems from the global dominance of the British Empire, from a modern outlook these views held by people at the time can be seen as arrogant as well as ignorant especially when they both don’t have any experience of the reality of a war. Sassoon’s friend and poet, Robert Graves confirmed that Sassoon was unware of the reality of war ‘without the remotest idea of what lay ahead’.
Attitudes towards death
Burial ceremonies were closely linked to Christian doctrines and the concept of a ‘good death’ during the Victorian era. Christianity gave families a model of acceptance of death and bereavement as the will of God. Haig presents Kipling’s belief that it is an honor to die defending your country, even if it means sacrificing the life of a family member. Preserving the British Empire and making sure Britain wins was the number one priority.
‘There is a price we have to pay. There is a risk we all have to take. Jack knows that… Therefore, we must continue to pass our children through the fire, until somehow we win and destroy her’. (Act 1, scene 5)
Kipling believes that his son dying in the war is a risk worth taking. Although Jack never explicitly expresses his own desire to fight in the war, Kipling assumes he shares the same belief as him. Sassoon responds to the death of anonymous soldiers in a similar way; he does not know them, and remarks that their deaths are glorious and meaningful:
“And they are fortunate…” (“France”)
And “When…you died…I speed you on your way” (“To His Dead Body”)
However, when both Sassoon’s brother (November 1915) and then his best friend David Thomas (May 1916) are killed, he eventually comes to the conclusion that death is not glorious, he develops the view that men are dying needlessly, as no military purpose is gained. He believes that the generals see the troops as expendable:
“He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack…
But he did for them both by his plan of attack”. (“The General”)
Although Kipling still holds the belief that his son’s death was a meaningful sacrifice he becomes less and less convincing of the fact.
RUDYARD: NO sacrifice…is too great…no sacrifice…however painful, is too great…if we win the day…” (MBJ Act 2 Sc 1 p.52)
Haig’s use of ellipsis here implies hesitancy and a lack of belief. Kipling’s repetition of the word ‘sacrifice’ emits a feeling as if he is trying to convince himself that is it a necessary ‘sacrifice’.. Yet Kipling never wavers from his position that John’s sacrifice is a meaningful and spiritual act, approved of by God.
Both Kipling and Sassoon start of believing that death during the war was noble and a cause to be celebrated. However, Sassoon realizes the realities of war from his firsthand experience fighting whereas Kipling is experiencing the war through his son does not realize the effects war is having on the men serving therefore he is still hanging onto the belief that a death at war is noble.
Images of Trench Life and Battle
Sassoon initially held the belief that the first World War was necessary and a sense of duty to be a part of Britain’s participation, however after experiencing the realities of the war first hand this view was altered. Rudyard Kipling never fought in the war himself however he also was in support of the war, hence the reason why he encouraged his son to join in the first place. Haig is able to present the hideous and terrifying aspects of war through an eye witness account given by one soldier of many that Kipling questions about his son John’s disappearance:
BOWE: “I see the gas creepin’ toward me, like somethin’ livin’…there’s a body…” (MBJ Act 2 Sc 3 p.70)
Haig uses ellipsis frequently to give an anxious and highly emotional tone to Bowe’s personal account of the day John Kipling dies. From the description of the events it is clear that the soldiers are traumatized from the events on the day, which suggests that if John survived, he would have definitely been emotionally traumatized too. Sassoon’s poem Attack is different to most poems, poems usually glamorized war and made fighting seem like a heroic achievement that all young men should desire. Sassoon puts a different spin on war by describing its harsh reality.
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow ‘ring sun, (“Attack”)
Although initially Sassoon describes the beautiful scenery of the mountains emerging in the early morning sun. Imagery is used here to describe a very peaceful and calming scenery. Sassoon does not continue this calm tone for long.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top, (“Attack”)
Sassoon describes the actual soldiers who are fighting in war. He describes their faces as grey, muttering and masked in fear. The colour grey is an imagery of death or lacking life. The soldiers are so scared and fearful that they are muttering without realizing it. This line truly creates a sense of horror, Sassoon has created a intense image of what it felt like on the battlefield.
Use of Language and Tone
Both Kipling and Sassoon wind up having conflicting attitudes towards the First World War. Rudyard Kipling’s language in Act 1 Scene 5 is one of devotion, optimism and idealism. He is blinded by his romanized belief that Britain is the greatest nation in the World, his optimism for the prospects of the war is detached from reality.
Rudyard: “That’s why our empire is uniquely successful. We have managed to combine benevolence and commerce. NO one has done it before…the world is a better place, a safer place, a more comfortable place than it was a hundred years ago.” (Act 1 Scene 5)
Rudyard truly believes that Britain is imperishable, and it highlights his naivety. The repetition of place in term of it being ‘safer’, ‘better’, ‘more comfortable’ reinforces the Rudyard’s certainty that this war is a positive thing. Haig does this to show the irony in this belief system many people like Kipling had before the war. This is contrasted by Sassoon’s poem ‘The General’. Sassoon’s poem the ‘The General’ became on the most famous anti-war poem written. He used many of his poems to express his disgust with that wasteful conflict itself. In the poem the unwary soldiers’ praise of their General’s cheery enthusiasm – ‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack. This contrasted starkly with the results of his ineffectiveness, just as his speech is juxtaposed with the soldiers’ cheerful slang. The use of generic names – ‘Jack’ and ‘Harry’ – which both personalizes and depersonalizes them, and the General’s breezily repeated greeting ‘good morning, good morning’ This phrase is ironic for various reasons. First, the greeting is so conventional; it is often simply a thing to say, not an expression of genuine emotion. Furthermore, mornings were especially bad times for troops fighting the kind of trench warfare common in World War I. It was often in the mornings that troops were sent “over the top” of the trenches frequently these attacks involved mass slaughter of soldiers running into “walls of blistering machine gunfire”. The general, is trying to be as cheerful and encouraging as possible even though he himself wouldn’t be the one going ‘over the top’.