Thursday, 11 November 2010

Grey Ghosts and Voices

May Wedderburn Cannan (1893-1973) was a British poet who was active in World War I. Although she is not as well known today as other war poets, in her day, her poetry about the war was well received, and of the war poets of the Great War, she is one of my favourites. For anyone wishing to know more, I would recommend the recently published anthology "The Tears of War: The Love Story of a Young Poet and a War Hero", complied by her granddaughter Charlotte Fyfe, which has her poems and extracts from letters between May and her fiancé Bevil Quiller-Couch.

Her memoir of her childhood, the war years, and those years immediately afterwards (written towards the end of her life) was published under the title "Grey Ghosts and Voices". In 1918, she was working as a Secretary for the espionage department at the War Office Department in Paris, and at the heart of the armistice. For Remembrance day this year, here is an extract from Grey Ghosts and Voices which gives her vivid account of the final days of the war, the joy of peace, and the sadness of loss:

On the night of 4th/5th of November they fired their last Barrage and the Guards entered Mauberge. They were at Villars Pol.

Bertha withdrew. We watched the flags move on the big map in the Colonel's room and could not believe what we saw, and turned to our other enemies; the bitter cold and the 'flu. It was the fore-runner of the great epidemic of 1919.

The Americans, who were short of experience, offered us jobs saying that they would pay us double what we earned and were genuinely hurt and puzzled when we refused them. Insatiable, they organised a "Get together" Meeting in the Trocadero for which they sent us an invitation and the Colonel directed that at least three of us must go. There were French, English and American blocks in the rising seats, and a platform draped with the Allied Flags. Mrs Alfred Lyttleton made a speech; Monsieur Pichon made a speech; some American made a speech. Everyone patted everyone on the back and the English sat rather silent among the general applause. It had been said that Lloyd George was coming over, but in the end, it was Lord Derby, the British Ambassador, who spoke for England.

It hung in the air. A feeling of terrified uncertainty, almost of terrified hope. People in the Pension began to eye us curiously obviously longing, but not quite daring, to ask us if we knew anything.

On the morning of November 11th I was called into the Colonel's room "to take some notes from the telephone." They were all there and got up and made room for me at the table. I think they must have thought that I knew shorthand which I didn't. A voice, very clear, thank God, said "Ready?" and began to dictate the Terms of the Armistice. They muttered a bit crowding round me and I said fiercely "Oh, shut up, I can't hear" and the skies didn't fall.

I wrote in my private short-long-hand and half my mind was in a prayer that I should be able to read it back. I could feel my heart thumping and hear the silence in the room round me_ When the voice stopped I said mechanically "understood" and got up. I made four copies of what I had written and took them in and went back to my little office staff and told them. I can't remember much what we said: I can only remember being so cold, and crying, and trying not to let the others see.

That night it was all over Paris. There were sounds of cheering and rejoicing down the Boulevards as I walked home.

What I thought of was "Recessional." The Pension produced some champagne at dinner and we drank the loyal toast.

And then across the table G. lifted her glass to me and said "Absent". I did not know her story nor she mine, but I drank to my friends who were dead and to my friends who, wounded, imprisoned, battered, shaken, exhausted, were alive in a new, and a terrible world...

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