Soldiers’ homecoming in poetry and prose

This post was written by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern-1821-John Cawse-Copyright-Ownership of Natinoal Army Museum London

John Cawse ‘A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern’ (1821) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The transition from military service to civilian existence has never been easy, as demonstrated in the accounts presented by Dr Kate McLoughlin on the first day of Birkbeck Arts Week 2014. Despite covering a period of over 2000 years, during which methods of warfare have changed beyond recognition, the emotions and experiences of the homecoming soldiers revealed striking similarities.

After the Battle of Waterloo, all veterans of the Battle were awarded a medal, one of which can be seen on the soldier’s uniform in John Cawse’s A Soldier Relating his Exploits in a Tavern (1821), while he proudly expounds upon his heroic feats. Dr McLoughlin drew our attention, however, to the more ambiguous response of his audience, whose demeanour suggests that they are less than enthralled by the soldier’s storytelling.

This kind of scene may be ambivalence towards the heroic status of the returned soldier is captured also by William Wordsworth in The Discharged Soldier. When pressed for stories from the war, the soldier responds with

A strange half-absence and a tone

Of weakness and indifference, as of one

Remembering the importance of his theme

but feeling it no longer

The discharged soldier’s reluctance (or perhaps inability) to share his story, contrasts to the British Government’s 1915 poster, encouraging men to sign up for the army by appealing to their desire to be able to recount their contribution to a future family. The poster shows a little girl asking “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” However, the father’s pensive gaze, to me, suggested he was not about to launch into tales of bravery and heroics. At first glance it seems to me that the poster aims to evoke a feeling of embarrassment at the idea of not having a heroic tale to tell in future. But the artist has unwittingly captured an expression which could be translated as the reluctance of a discharged soldier to brag of his former actions.

Henry Nelson O'Neil 'Home Again' (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

Henry Nelson O’Neil ‘Home Again’ (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The ‘soldier as hero’ can be a difficult role to fill, suggested Dr McLoughlin. On homecoming, soldiers are welcomed as heroes, as depicted in Henry Nelson O’ Neil’s Home Again (1858). However, Henry Metcalfe’s memoirs describe how, following his return from India in 1859, the warm welcome by a “grateful public” was soon forgotten and Thomas Jackson’s memoirs (I missed the date of this publication) describe how he “sees himself as an isolated being”.  The hero of Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) describes how following the reunion with his family he sensed “a veil between us.”

The change which creates this distance between soldiers and the people and places that were previously so familiar to them was so pronounced in some of the accounts that the soldier was not even recognised by his family. Upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca it is only his dog and his former wet nurse who recognise him (and the latter only because of a scar on his leg). Even the wife who has faithfully seen off suitors during his 20-year absence fails to recognise her husband. John Ryder, who published his memoir in 1853, describes how on his return to Twyford he went first to the pub where he met with lifelong acquaintances, and later his father and mother, none of whom recognised him.

The final returning soldier to whom we were introduced was the captain in Helen Ashton’s novel The Captain Comes Home (1947). On learning that his wife has remarried during his long absence during World War Two, the captain returns to his village and assaults her new husband, for which he is put on trial. Identifying the significance of this literary trial, Dr McLoughlin concluded by noting that the weight of expectation on homecoming soldiers throughout history and today means that they all face trials of their own.

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