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Monday 19 January 2015

Ivor Gurney: First Time In [“After the dread tales ... ”]

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I agree "Lessons of #GreatWar still relevant"... but did we learn anything?: image via Green Fields Beyond @GFB1914, 19 December 2014

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit, shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome,
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next day's guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout;
Candles they gave us, precious and shared over-rations --
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the White Rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung -- but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

Ivor Gurney (b. Gloucester 28 August 1890 d. London 26 December 1937): First Time In, written between 1920 and 1922, first published 2000

Soldiers of the English infantry in France during the first world war: photo by Fototeca Storica Nazionale via The Guardian, 16 December 2014

#GreatWar October 1916 Members of the #RoyalGarrisonArtillery: image via David Doughty @DavidWDoughty, 17 January 2015 Melbourne, Australia

Firing trench line at Passchendaele: photo by The Discovery Channel via The Guardian, 8 November 2014

Highland Territorials in trench with mascot dog: photo by The Discovery Channel via The Guardian, 8 November 2014

Officers of the 9th Rifle Brigade enjoy themselves in August 1916 after a torrid time in the Somme trenches. Of the eight officers in the picture, five were killed and two wounded during the war: photo by Richard van Emden via The Guardian, 8 November 2014

from Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916: film still courtesy Imperial War Museum via the Guardian, 25 February 2014

Somme Canal

March 1917: Members of a Royal Garrison Artillery working party carry duck-boards across the frozen Somme canal at Frise, France. The village was on the front line of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed: photo by Lt J W Brooke/Imperial War Museum via The Guardian, 6 May 2014

Somme Canal

Trees line the Somme canal at Frise where outlines of trenches can still be seen today: photo by Peter Macdiarmid via The Guardian, 6 May 2014

A section of the Verdun battlefield seen today #GreatWar: image via Brian Altobello @since1775, 19 November 2014

Wales' Chris Coleman and the squad visit the Welsh war memorial at Flanders Field #GreatWar: image via FA Wales @FAWales, 17 November 2014


TC said...

This poem recounts the details of Ivor Gurney's first night of action in the Great War. He felt himself fortunate to have been dropped into in the company of Welshmen. The endeared landscape of his native Gloucestershire extended, in his mind, to the neighboring countryside of Wales.

"On 25th May 1916 the 2nd/5th Glosters sailed to Le Havre aboard a troopship, marched towards Flanders, rested a few miles north of Bethune, and then went into trenches at Riez Bailleul for a week of instruction under the London Welsh Regiment."

Gurney possessed a trained musician's ear, and a fierce desire for specificity in his poetry, so we may assume the songs sung by the Welsh Fusiliers in the trenches, marked as securing and consoling notes within the Bedlam of military insanity in his poem, would have affected him deeply in his tremulous moment of baptism in war.

The songs he singles out in his poem: David of the White Rock, The Slumber Song, and a third unnamed "Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys/ Are sung."

"Dafydd y Garreg Wen [David of the White Rock} is a traditional Welsh air and folk song.

"David Owen, the famous blind harper and composer, lived near Porthmadog in Caernarfonshire, Wales in the first half of the 18th century, who was known locally as Dafydd y Garreg Wen, (English: David of the White Rock). The epithet Y Garreg Wen (English: The White Rock) was the name of the farm near Morfa Bychan in which he lived.

"Tradition has it that as Owen lay on his death bed, he called for his harp and composed the haunting air. He died at the age of 29 and was buried at St Cynhaearn's Church near Porthmadog.

"The words were added nearly a hundred years later in by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes."

A modern nontraditional version:

Takla Makan (Tony Algood): Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock)


As to the mysterious unnamed tune, nonacademic (the best) commentators have agreed:

"Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) is the most likely candidate. The tone of the music and the words fit the setting in which Gurney found himself that evening. He sets the scene with 'Afterglow' and 'candles', while his reference to '"Slumber Song"', so soft, and that Beautiful tune' all fit the sense of peace and calm that this particular traditional song brings to those who sing it and those who hear it sung. 'Hill and vale in slumber sleeping, I my loving vigil keeping All through the night'".--
Pam, 10 March 2012

Ar Hyd a Nos (All Through The Night) is a Welsh folksong sung to a tune which was first recorded in Edward Jones' Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards (1784). The Welsh lyrics were written by John Ceiriog Hughes."

tpw said...

Thanks, Tom. It's hard to take in the poem and the photos without feeling a mixture of rage and despair. I'm sure you know the great Eric Bogle song, usually known as "The Green Fields of France." It's beautiful and moving-- I believe Harry Belafonte recorded "All through the Night" in the '50s, turning it into something of a hit over here.

TC said...


Thanks very much, on behalf of I.G. (who survived that conflict in body perhaps, but not in soul); and of all those who survived in no part or way, and whose sufferings are now lost to time, washed away in all the propaganda b.s. surrounding the last or latest or next Great Cause Worth Dying For.

That long, painful WHY? will continue to hang in the air as long as nations and their always fatally unknowing, forever tragically unmisgiving peoples attempt to solve their problems by going to war.

"'s all happened again,
and again, and again, and again and again..."