Siegfried Sassoon’s poem The Rear-Guard describes an event most likely during the Battle of Arras, which was between April 9 and May 16 of 1917. The narrator describes a soldier, whose senses have been compromised, desperately trying to escape from the polluted underground tunnels to the crisp night air of the battlefield. There is a real sense of urgency and terror, in this poem. This is not a rosy pictorial of the war on the Western Front; from the very first line the poet thrusts the reader into the action, in order to show the reader what the soldiers really experience on the front line. This poem comes across biographical; so it is possible that the “he” in the poem is someone that Sassoon knew or Sassoon was talking about himself in the third person.
Siegfried Sassoon, who was overpowered by an intense sense of patriotism, joined the British Army just as WWI was beginning, but a riding accident delayed his leaving England. In May of 1915, Sassoon was finally able to fight. Sassoon quickly learned that his romantic notion of war was very wrong, and his poetry began to reflect the harsh realities of war that had hitherto been covered up by patriotic propaganda. Sassoon was depressed by the war, but he did not let it stop him from doing his duty, and he was known for his exceptional courage. Many of his fellow soldiers called him “Mad Jack,” because he appeared to be completely fearless; he would go on suicide missions, he had no regard for his personal safety. He was later sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to recover from shell shock, which is where he met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet. He returned to duty despite his anti-war sentiments, and rose to the rank of captain before he relinquished his commission in 1919.
The Battle of Arras began the spring of 1917. The British, Canadian, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and Australian troops attacked the German trenches. For the majority of WWI the opposing armies of the Western Front were at a stalemate. In the Battle of Arras, the Allies objective was to break through the German defenses, and engage with the Germans, who were largely outnumbered by the Allies. The Allies made significant advances, but they ended up in a stalemate once again. The Allies lost a lot soldiers during this battle. Underneath the city of Arras there is a vast network of caverns, quarries, galleries, and sewage tunnels. Assault tunnels were also built under the city, and they stopped just short of the German line. Mines were laid under the front lines, ready to be blown up immediately before an assault.
(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)
In 1916, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg became the commander-in-chief of the German armies. In honor of the new Field Marshall, the Hindenburg Line was built along a salient in the German front, in order to shorten its front by thirty miles. The Germans withdrew to the line beginning in February 1917. The Line consisted of concrete bunkers, machine gun emplacements, heavy barbed wire, tunnels, deep trenches, dug-out, and command posts. The line spread across the Western Front from Lens to Rheims, France.
Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air. (lines 1-3)
The poet thrusts the reader right into the middle of the drama by starting the poem with the verb “groping,” in order to convey the intense struggle that soldiers faced in war. The soldier’s senses are comprised; he is carefully walking along the tunnel, feeling his way against the wall, mostly likely because he cannot see clearly. The tunnel is pitch-black, and the only light that the soldier had to see by was a torch that blinked on and off. A torch is another word for flashlight. The light pries into the dark crevices of the underground tunnel with a patching (or fragmented) glare. The total darkness adds to the overwhelming sense of urgency and fear. The flashlight acts like an eye; it winks, pries, and glares. The soldier looks all around the tunnel as best as he could, smelling the air. The air is unwholesome (harmful to physical, mental, or moral well-being), which is most likely due to some kind of gas attack or the smell of dead bodies decomposing.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead. (4-7)
The first three lines established the underground tunnels as the setting of the poem, while lines four and five bring in a homey feel (tins, boxes — mattress, etc.). The poet does this do create a strange uneasiness. It is clear that men were living in these tunnels. Like war, the tunnels were like another world; the rules of conventional society had no place. The fact that the mirror is smashed could mean that the soldiers felt ugly or ashamed of what they had become, and couldn’t bear to look themselves in the eye. The tunnels were dug fifty feet below the city of Arras and no-man’s-land. “Rosy gloom” is an oxymoron. Rosy is defined as the color of a rose; hopeful; or promising. Gloom is defined as a partial or total darkness; lowness of spirits; dejection; or an atmosphere of despondency or hopelessness. When these two words are used together it gives the reader a sense of how the soldier’s felt; they tried to stay hopeful, but some days the war seemed hopeless. It can also be used to describe the darkness in the tunnels (gloomy) interrupted by the soldier’s flashlight, which creates a sort of rosy haze.
Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug. (8-10)
Once again the poet begins the line with a verb, which puts the reader back into the action. The tunnel is so dark that he tripped over something, and had to grab the wall to stabilize himself. The soldier thinks that he has stumbled upon a sleeping man, who was using a rug as a blanket or perhaps for protection.
‘˜I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.
‘˜God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep)
‘˜Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’ (11-13)
The soldier asks the sleeping man where he could find the headquarters, but the man did not answer. The soldier, in frustration, yells at the man. “Blast” is British slang for an exclamation of annoyance. The parentheses around “for days he’d had no sleep” are used to show the soldier’s intense impatience and envy of the sleeping man. The soldier was impatient with the sleeping man, because he would not answer the question; the soldier was also envious of the sleeping man, because he had not been able to sleep for days. “Stinking place” is further evidence that the air is corrupted by some poisonous gas or the stench of rotting corpses.
Savage, he kicked a soft unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound. (14-18)
“Savage” connotes a wild, untamed, or uncivilized soldier, who has lost his humanity. The “sleeping” man is described as a “heap,” which is another word for trash. It is uncertain whether or not the “sleeping” man is dead or on the brink of death, but a case could be made either way. The fact that the man is described as “sleeping” could mean that he is dead, because it would be nearly impossible to sleep through the loud noise of war. The “sleeping” man is also described as being “soft,” which probably referring to his character; war changes soldiers and it tends to make them hard, but when they die they are able to go back to how they used to be (soft/normal). The soldier shined his light across the dead man’s livid face. “Livid” means both enraged and bruised. The “sleeping” man’s eyes looked up at the soldier, which makes me believe that the man might still be alive, but he also could have died that way. His eyes “wore agony,” meaning he was in extreme pain either presently or when he died. “Agony dying hard ten days before” has two meanings: first, he died ten days before the soldier found him; second, he surpassed agony ten days before the soldier found him. A blackened wound indicated that necrotic (dead body tissue) tissue is present. The man is clutching the wound, which can mean that he was either recently wounded, or he died in that position and rigor mortis kept him in that position.
Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound. (19-22)
The soldier continues on alone. There is a strong sense of isolation in this poem. The soldier began the poem alone, then he came upon the “sleeping” man and had a glimmer of hope that he wasn’t alone after all, but his hope was fleeting when he realized that he was alone again (either because the “sleeping” man was mortally wounded or already dead). The soldier suddenly came upon a flight of stairs that was lit by dawn’s light. “Dawn’s ghost” is another way of saying that it was becoming increasing light outside. The sudden light blinded those that had been in the pitch-black tunnels. The tunnels are fifty feet below the surface, so the sounds of bombs are muffled. “Boom” and “muffled” is an example of onomatopoeia, used here to convey the din (a loud confused mixture of noises) from above. The underground and the surface are clearly two different worlds; passing in-and-out of them shocks the senses.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step. (23-25)
Finally, the soldier has reached the surface. He is sweating profusely from the horrific ordeal that he managed to escape. He escapes the darkness of the tunnels just as the sun is coming up; a new day is beginning. The twilight air seems almost cleansing to the soldier; it gives him new life. “Twilight air” has an almost romantic connotation as opposed to the “unwholesome air” of line three. Once on the surface he has to be aware of land mines, which is why he is stepping carefully once again. The soldier journeyed through the tunnels, which can be viewed as a sort of hell, and managed to emerge from hell alive. Even though he managed to escape hell, he is still back where he began, moving step by step. War is never ending for those who fight; they relive it over and over again, every time they think that they have finally escaped it, they are drawn back into it. The poem seems to be sending the message that war is futile; it never ends.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norton: New York, 2006. 1960-1.
Wikipedia contributors. “Hindenburg Line.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 May. 2011. Web. 12 Jun. 2011.
Wikipedia contributors. “Siegfried sassoon.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Dec. 2007. Web. 12 Jun. 2011.
Wikipedia contributors. “Battle of Arras (1917).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Jun. 2011. Web. 12 Jun. 2011.