[First posted on MyT]
Patrick MacGill is the only person I know of who wrote books about life as an ordinary working-class British Army soldier in the First World War trenches (there may have been others).
MacGill was born in Glenties, Co. Donegal, Ireland, in 1891 … the first of eleven children of a small farmer. He left school the age of ten, and two years later was hired out as a labourer in a neighbouring county. At fourteen he went to Scotland to pick potatoes, and he later lived the hard life of an itinerant navvy, working on the railways and other big civil engineering projects. All the time he was educating himself by reading Tolstoy, Gogol, Zola and Hugo, as well as Kipling.
The Daily Express offered him a job as a reporter on the strength of some poems he wrote and articles he submitted, but he didn’t like the work much. He gained some fame as ‘the navvy poet’ and later worked in Windsor Castle as an editor of ancient manuscripts. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Children of the Dead End, sold 35,000 copies in the week of its release; he wrote many more novels and books of verse.
MacGill enlisted in the London Irish Rifles at the outbreak of war, and was wounded at Loos in 1915 … he was still just 24 years old. The Red Horizon and The Great Push are evocative accounts of his war experiences, full of keenly observed details of trench life, the horrors of war and the speech of his fellow soldiers, as well as a highly developed humanity.
With his wife and three daughters, MacGill emigrated to the USA in 1930. He died in Florida in 1963.
Children of the Dead End is still a good read (it’s some years since I read it). MacGill sides firmly with the poor and downtrodden against the powerful and influential, the latter including (in Ireland) priests and gombeen men (shopkeepers that exploited the poor by charging high interest on credit). His works were controversial in their time. While dated in places, they are still vivid and readable, with plenty of lively characters.
The Patrick MacGill Summer School provides a forum for political and cultural debate in Donegal each year.
The following is an extract from The Red Horizon.
In some places the enemy’s bullets search the main street by night and day; a journey from the rear to the trenches is made across the open, and the eternal German bullet never leaves off searching for our boys coming in to the firing line. You can rely on sandbagged safety in the villages, but on the way from there to the trenches you merely trust your luck; for the moment your life has gone out of your keeping.
No civilian is allowed to enter one place, but I have seen a woman there. We were coming in, a working party, from the trenches when the colour of dawn was in the sky. We met her on the street opposite the pile of bricks that once was a little church: the spire of the church was blown off months ago and it sticks point downwards in a grave. The woman was taken prisoner. Who was she? Where did she come from? None of us knew, but we concluded she was a spy. Afterwards we heard that she was a native who had returned to have a look at her home.
We were billeted at the rear of the village on the ground floor of a cottage. Behind our billet was the open country where Nature, the great mother, was busy; the butterflies flitted over the soldiers’ graves, the grass grew over unburied dead men, who seemed to be sinking into the ground, apple trees threw out a wealth of blossom which the breezes flung broadcast to earth like young lives in the whirlwind of war. We first came to the place at midnight; in the morning when we got up we found outside our door, in the midst of a jumble of broken pump handles and biscuit tins, fragments of chairs, holy pictures, crucifixes and barbed wire entanglements, a dead dog dwindling to dust, the hair falling from its skin and the white bones showing. As we looked on the thing it moved, its belly heaved as if the animal had gulped in a mouthful of air. We stared aghast and our laughter was not hearty when a rat scurried out of the carcase and sought safety in a hole of the adjoining wall. The dog was buried by the Section 3. Four simple lines serve as its epitaph:
Here lies a dog as dead as dead,
A Sniper’s bullet through its head,
Untroubled now by shots and shells,
It rots and can do nothing else.
The village where I write this is shelled daily, yesterday three men, two women and two children, all civilians, were killed. The natives have become almost indifferent to shell-fire.
In the villages in the line of war between Souchez and Ypres strange things happen and wonderful sights can be seen.