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Keith Douglas: soldier-poet of the desert and the Second World War

In exposing the unchivalric side of WWII, Keith Douglas was the heir to Siegfried Sassoon.

Campaign trail: tanks roll through the desert in North Africa during the Second World War. Photograph: Universal Images Group

Seventy years ago, on 6 June 1944, Captain Keith Douglas, aged just 24, landed in Normandy. Three days later he was dead. As the 8th Armoured Brigade sought a breakout south of Bayeux, Douglas was hit by mortar shrapnel. Fatalistic, the young poet had crossed the Channel convinced that he was going to die. Before his tank regiment, the Sherwood Rangers, left for France, he wrote “On a Return from Egypt”. Its prescient final stanza announced: 

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

The writers of the Western Front – the generation of Sassoon, Owen and Graves – have cast a long shadow, all but obscuring Britain’s soldier-poets of the Second World War. Yet Ted Hughes was insistent that Douglas’s verse warranted comparison with the best of Wilfred Owen. Sassoon – “Mad Jack” – is arguably a more obvious figure of comparison. Both men displayed leadership and courage under fire, translating that experience into memorable prose and verse that ranges from the biting to the lyrical.

In his 1943 poem “Desert Flowers”, Douglas name­checks Isaac Rosenberg. The fascination with flora and fauna surviving against all the odds may be resonant of Rosenberg but it recalls another First World War writer, Edmund Blunden, and his memoir, Undertones of War. When Douglas went up to Oxford in 1938, Blunden was his English tutor. Here was a direct link with the poets of the Western Front; Blunden was sufficiently impressed by Douglas’s undergraduate poems to pass them on to T S Eliot at Faber. By then, his student had quit Oxford for Sandhurst.

Dying when he did, Douglas became a writer defined solely by war. Yet someone who went to war so young could still have been with us had he survived the Allied campaign in north-west Europe. Not that his chances of staying alive were high, given the Sherwood Rangers’ almost continuous fighting through to May 1945, by which time the regiment had lost 344 officers and 213 men of other ranks. With a fuller body of work, would esteem for Douglas’s wartime poetry and prose have become tarnished, or would many still acclaim him as the finest soldier-poet of the “people’s war” – a worthy successor to Sassoon, Owen, et al?

Alamein to Zem Zem, Douglas’s memoir of the North African campaign, was published in 1946. It appealed to contemporary readers because here was a theatre of operation where popular and national mythology could resurrect the glamour and chivalry of a certain kind of war. At the time – and later, through the British film industry – the desert war was projected as a throwback to a better age, with mutual respect between enemies. Yet Douglas spared no detail in demonstrating that death and mutilation were every bit as bloody, devastating and traumatic when you were dressed in silk scarf, waistcoat and suede boots as when you were huddled in a ditch defending Sedan or Stalingrad. His letters and verse confirm that from the moment he joined the army in 1940 he had no illusions about the nature of war in the mid-20th century.

In June 1944, Douglas (pictured left in uniform) found himself in the vanguard of the Allied invasion of Europe. Nearly two years earlier, he had missed the start of the last great battle fought by massed forces of the British empire and Commonwealth. He was serving as a camouflage officer in Palestine when the Sherwood Rangers, having finally swapped horses for tanks, survived a baptism of fire at Alam Hal­fa and then led the breakout at El Alamein. Six days later, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel E O Kellett, welcomed Douglas back when the poet, restless to rejoin his regiment, stole a truck and drove to the front. Within hours he was leading his troops westward into the Libyan desert.

“Flash” Kellett was a master of foxhounds in his native Nottinghamshire and a Tory MP. As “Gentleman Jim”, he dominates the narrative in Alamein to Zem Zem, which is very much an account of Englishmen at war: those from elsewhere in the British Isles are scarcely mentioned and women feature only as part of a vague backstory that hints at unrequited love in Cairo. In Douglas’s memoir, “Tom” – another pseudonym – is second in command by virtue of having spent his life working with horses, whereas the unattractive personality of “Raoul”, the next most senior officer, is attributed to his being half-French. Douglas records such prejudice with neither endorsement nor disapproval, albeit displaying bemusement and amusement at the survival of this feudal structure.

It is clear that these volunteer gentlemen soldiers are an anachronism. Having so recently dismounted their horses, they endeavour to retain the routines, rituals and language of both mounted cavalry and the hunt. This language, recorded with a mixture of affection and incredulity by Douglas, is firmly rooted in rural life, most obviously fox-hunting and cricket. In that great tradition of the wartime middle and upper classes, understatement is everything. This is understood throughout the regiment, with no Americans present to assume that all is well when the real message is one of crisis.

Douglas chronicled the dying days of a paternalistic social structure in which the officers, scions of the East Midlands landed classes and their squires, deem the well-being of their men paramount and espouse a gentlemanly set of values. They may be amateurs compared with proper armoured regiments but they learn fast. On 5 November 1942, 26 enemy tanks were destroyed at Galal, with Douglas playing a prominent role. The likes of Gentleman Jim and Tom are respectfully portrayed as leaders of men – yet both were dead by the time the wounded writer rejoined his regiment in the spring of 1943. While in hospital, Douglas drafted “Gallantry”, a poem whose Sassoon-indebted satire displays bitterness tempered by regret and even remorse. It begins:

The Colonel in a casual voice
spoke into the microphone a joke
which through a hundred earphones broke
into the ears of a doomed race.

Into the ears of the doomed boy, the fool
whose perfectly mannered flesh fell
in opening the door for a shell
as he had learnt to do at school.

Douglas is clearly not one of the old guard but neither does he conform to Orwell’s ideal of the progressive technocrat. His 1943 poem “Aristocrats” is a moving panegyric for the chevaliers of the Shires who took the Sherwood Rangers to war four years earlier, the final stanza recalling how:

The plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear but a hunting horn.

Such poems confirm Douglas as the bridge between old and new, shouting, “Tally-ho!” and yet comfortable with the technology and tactics of mechanised warfare; the hearty, killing time in his tank reading Tit-Bits, and the intellectual, a handy copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his battle­dress pocket. He was thus well placed to record changes taking place in the regiment, a microcosm of more profound social developments on the home front. Back in Britain during the first half of 1944, Douglas noted how much the country had altered; wartime London’s literary life exposed him to an agenda for change singularly absent from the social chit-chat of the mess.

Douglas’s sense of what it means to be English may, to a degree, have absorbed a leftward shift in attitudes. Yet on the whole he retained the values and prejudices of his class, not least a veiled anti-Semitism. “Cosmopolitan” was often coded language for being Jewish but Douglas was genuinely cosmopolitan – he had travelled in Europe and was rare among his comrades in being a Francophile. His linguistic skills stretched to basic German and he shared his brigade’s healthy respect for the Afrika Korps. On the other hand he loathed Italians because, unlike the Germans in the desert, they refused to play the game and respect the rules; witness their booby-trapping of the corpses of British soldiers.

The war in North Africa was fought across vast spaces, with the odd nomadic tribe the only civilian intruders on an empty battlefield. Douglas contrasts the stark beauty of the desert with the ugly detritus of contemporary warfare. Evidence of death and destruction is everywhere, with the ubiquitous wrecked tanks emblematic of “industrial war” at its apogee.

Death is similarly on an industrial scale and Douglas spares few details. “Dead Men” is a truly disturbing poem, its extended image of the wild dog devouring dead comrades in shallow graves prompting speculation as to the writer’s state of mind had he survived the war. “How to Kill” recalls Orwell’s reflections in Spain on finding frozen in your rifle sight a fellow human being, but one ignorant of his imminent demise: “Death, like a familiar, hears/And look, has made a man of dust/of a man of flesh. This sorcery/I do.” Those last words seem Shakespearean, not Orwellian, as does the final stanza:

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

Douglas spotlights the horror, tedium and stupidity but he also signals the moments of pure delight – the heightened pleasure linked only by the absence of mid-century Britain’s prevailing rules, conventions and mores. Thus poems such as “The Knife” and “Cairo Jag” are located in the Egyptian capital’s raciest and most exotic settings, carrying a sexual subtext that reinforces the impression of a complicated love life. “Behaviour of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden”, a witty and bitter-sweet short story in seven stanzas, is sufficiently black as to suggest its author would be better off back on the front line. Douglas was no saint – far from it. Yet he was scrupulously (even cruelly) honest and nowhere more so than in his much-anthologised and best-known poem, “Vergissmeinnicht”, the “forget-me-not” of the dead German’s girlfriend:

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Here, surely, is someone who stands comparison with the steeliest soldier-poets of an earlier conflict. Not that Douglas resurrected the futility of fallen comrades’ sacrifice – for all his fatalism, he deemed himself to be fighting a very different sort of war, justified if not unreservedly just. Too often Douglas’s poems are seen in terms of what came before, yet more striking is their modernity. This, after all, is the writing of a young man, albeit as a consequence of combat one older than his years; they prompt the question of what was still to come. What does survive is an evocative and elegiac account of the desert war. The attractiveness of the author comes across strongly: the intelligence, the quiet courage and the good humour. As such, the last word should surely rest with Captain Douglas’s batman: “I like you, sir. You’re shit or bust, you are.”

Adrian Smith is professor of modern history at the University of Southampton. He will deliver a lecture on Keith Douglas at the university on 9 June. For more information, visit: southampton.ac.uk

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit