This mini-guide thing has one purpose: to help you pass the demonic war synoptic paper in June. It doesn’t give promised A grades and it is by no means entirely accurate – nor is it likely to be as good as any teacher authored handouts, but it should prove useful, especially in helping with the historical context of war literature. I’m no literature aficionado, and I do often denounce this ridiculous concept of ‘reading around your subject’, but I decided to make this guide while collecting my own materials for this rather daunting paper. I must, however, make the disclaimer that I am in no respect an expert of anything, so don’t take my word as gospel, but use these pages in any way you wish – even if they are burned for energy when the sun goes out… I digress, now for the serious stuff.
The aim for this exam
Straight from the horse’s (AQA’s) mouth, their specification anyway is the important notice that this exam centres on WW1, and literature in the 1900s based on this conflict. In this 3-hour paper there will be unseen (unless your ridiculously prepared) literature, in the form of poetry, monologues, non-fiction and fiction alike. The exam will test your ability to interpret these texts without the assistance of revision guides or the safety of pre-annotated books.
How to start
I suppose the best advice is to start by reading through what I’ve written in this guide and then approaching your preparation in a way you are comfortable with, even if that’s doing nothing until next year (some people work better under pressure). I’m certainly unlikely to dash down to the Chelmsford library and leaf through every piece of war literature ever written. It’s probably best to be selective in your reading, as you don’t want to spend forever on one exam and you are more likely to have success with selected pieces rather than an information overload.
It’s difficult to suggest texts to you, since I am not an incredibly wide reader. However, from my own research, I believe I have made a suitable list of poems, plays and texts from which you can make a start. Below is a selection of titles and authors I would recommend for relevance in this unit:
Apologia pro Poemate Me, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Dulce et Decorum est, The Dead-Beat – All poems by Wilfred Owen.
How to Die, Glory of Women, Suicide in the Trenches – All poems by Siegfried Sassoon.
Who’s for the Game?, The Call – Poems by Jesse Pope.
Birdsong – A novel by Sebastian Faulks.
All quiet on the Western Front – A novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
Regeneration – A trilogy (based on real-life) by Pat Barker.
Journey’s End – A drama by R.C Sheriff.
Henry V – A drama by Shakespeare
Advice on finding materials
AQA’s examiners’ report indicates several key themes, which help the choosing of literature in preparation. It is advisable that you collect at least 6 pieces of literature and are comfortable with being able to discuss them in some respect. AQA advises students to review a drama piece (such as Journey’s End), as well as a fictional novel (eg – Birdsong). Also, students should review poetry, being sure to include at least one female poet (such as Jesse Pope) in their reading, and a non-combatant. It is also wise to gain contrast in pro-war and anti-war texts in this reading.
How to use wider reading
To make your reading and efforts worthwhile, be sure to understand it well, and to review it frequently – especially shorter texts, such as poetry. By annotating your own readings, it will brush-up on your use of language when discussing verse and other text. It is a good idea to be able to quote from a few of your texts, but this is not essential, as there is plenty of opportunity to quote from texts provided in the exam. Due to the nature of the unit being synoptic, however, examiners are likely to be impressed if students can show they have read more broadly, and quoting your own sources, or discussing them in context with the provided sources will definitely earn you more marks, particularly in part 1b of the paper. It would be wise to check the assessment objectives and see where your reading will be credited in the exam. It is not worth your while to use extensive quotes if they will gain you no marks.
Timing in the exam
Most people have their own way of timing themselves in the exam. Yet, this exam, with its potential of many texts (approximately 5 or 6) to annotate, and its two extended essay questions requires a more disciplined approach. Three hours, if well used, should be adequate. However, there is danger in becoming complacent or rushing in. Most examiners advise students to read the texts through and annotate thoroughly. My own instincts tell me to read the questions and then choose which one to tackle first, before reading the texts relevant to that question and annotating them. I think it is probably a waste of time, however, to turn the texts into your GCSE anthologies and have blocks of text on the page, underline the quotable sections (or the relevant contextual ones – in relation to the question) and move onto the question. Heavy annotating will just confuse you, just allow for extra thinking time and do not panic. In my view 30 minutes of your 180 is adequate for reviewing and making notes on the attached texts, giving you 150 minutes writing time. That’s just a personal view; it really depends on your confidence and writing fluency.
In the exams, it is likely that marks will be awarded for the correct use of terminology, historical and literary. For this reason, I have compiled a (very) short list of terms and how they relate to the context of war literature:
Patriotism – An unwavering support of one’s nation, which can be applied to certain pro-war writers.
Trench warfare – Arguably the most fear-evoking images of WW1. Lack of food, disease spreading and frequent deaths caused huge discomfort.
No man’s land – The place between opposing trenches where most deaths occurred when men went ‘over the top’ (charged enemy trenches).
Poison/Mustard gas – Another feared article of WW1, it is often referred to in literature due to its psychologically tormenting effects.
Conscription – This was forced army service for men of a certain age in WW1. It features frequently in literature, as many resented it.
Home front – This was the term used to refer to Britain at war-time. British shores were seen as a front, as the war touched, even on the lives of those who stayed at home (including women and families).
Jingoism – This refers to the constant motif of patriotism and pro-war messages within literature, particularly pieces that compare war to games.
Consonance – Common in anti-war writings, the use of many ‘harsh’ consonants is used for effect. Eg: “While you are knitting socks to send your son/ His face is trodden deeper in the mud” (Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’).
Metre – The use of regular structure in lines, including syllabic structures that ensure regular reading rhythm (well shown by Owen’s poems).
Satire – This is a device used to mock or parody other writing or figures (often people) through writings of a similar form. Eg: Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, is a direct denouncement of Jesse Pope’s ‘Who’s for the Game?’
Rhythm/Rhyme – How the poem is read, in terms of a rhyme scheme or syllabic relation between lines. Regularity and irregularity of forms in this sense can reveal the message of a poem often.
Tone – On a basic level, war literature centres around the pro or anti-war view, but the author’s tone is often distinguishable in relation to their experience, or lack of, in war.
Context of literature
In terms of WW1 literature, it is invaluable to have some knowledge about the war, especially when discussing the context in which certain texts were written, relating to certain essential dates in the War’s progression. For this reason, I have dedicated this section to discussing every essential nuance of the First World War. While you may find this boring, knowledge of the nature of WW1, the weaponry used and how it all started are essential to appreciating the war writings properly.
Why the war started
There are many long and short-term factors involved in the outbreak of war in 1914. In the early 1900s Europe had slowly fractured into alliances, with countries like Germany forging acts for military aid with Austria-Hungary (which at this time were a joint Empire). The many pacts made caused tension to build between countries such as France and Germany, who shared a history of conflict. Also, an arms race between Britain, Germany and the other European powers was going on, with each nation trying to produce more weapons, soldiers and ships than any other – this competition naturally caused rising tension.
Similar competitions went on in overseas trade, with Britain and Germany competing for trading contracts in the Balkans and other key areas. However, the widely considered flashpoint which started the war, was the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke: Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was killed by Gavrilo Princep (a Serbian of the Black Hand terrorist group), while visiting Serbia on a diplomatic mission. The assassination caused the Austro-Hungarian army to invade Serbia, which caused Russia to declare war on Austria-Hungary (as Russia signed a treaty to defend Serbia before this). Germany declared war on Russia, and then France – who had declared war on Germany when they declared it on Russia. When the German army moved through Belgium war was declared by both sides, and with the Belgians and French calling for British aid, the British Empire was dragged into the conflict. By August 1st, 1914 a whole array of nations were involved in the conflict.
Technology and weaponry in WW1
In WW1 there were new and feared technologies, including the howitzer cannon (used to bombard the trenches), trench mortars (which caused exploding shrapnel to cut through bodies) and poison gas (introduced by the Germans). In war literature, shells and gas are quite frequently referred to, for their psychological impact. The advent of weapons that could maim and kill so effectively is what made the war so frightening – your life was always in danger. The introduction of planes and dog fighting, as well as the tank (at the Somme in 1916) were also dramatic, but not heavily publicised. Poems related to gas and other feared weapons are: ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen.
WW1 became infamous for its trench warfare, where France was quite literally sectioned by trenches. Trenches were seen to be safe, but ironically led to more deaths than any other individual weapon, due to the spreading of diseases such as trench food and pneumonia. There was constant fear of being ordered ‘over the top’ – where hundreds of men would charge over no man’s land (sometimes hundreds of metres of barbed wire, shells and dead bodies with the added possibility of gas or shell attacks) to try and take enemy trenches. For this reason the frontline trench was often dubbed the ‘forlorn hope’ trench. As men left their trenches and crossed the no-man’s land, they were shelled, shot by machine-guns or simply stabbed by bayonets when they dived into enemy trenches. Blackadder goes forth focuses on the futility of trench warfare. ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ by Sassoon is also a prominent example of trench warfare in literature.
The home front
As WW1 was considered the first ‘total war’ (it involved those in Britain and abroad), much of its literature features on the home front. For many (especially women who weren’t allowed to fight), their experience of war was in the factories, and also in towns where shelling from sea and zeppelin raids led to killing of civilians. Recruitment poetry is also related to the home front, as it involved much propaganda, shown by both Jesse Pope’s and Rupert Brooke’s literature. Their jingoistic pro-war literature reflected many initial attitudes to the war as a form of game, which contrasts massively with later views of it as a senseless slaughter. A large part of the home front focuses on the contextual role of women in the war, propaganda and conscription (introduced in 1915 for the first time ever). Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ is an attack on the home front jingoism, especially of women who enthusiastically supported the war effort.
Changing attitudes to war
In Britain, the initial view was that there would be a quick victory. The idea of trench warfare, or German victory was never considered. Propaganda from the government and patriotism caused a jingoistic vibe to sweep London when war was declared. People like Jesse Pope even wrote about war as a game that could be played and won.
However, as time went on propaganda could not always contain failures, such as the Somme death toll: 1.1 million deaths for a gain of only 10km of land. This causes the separation between pre-Somme and post-Somme attitudes, and therefore literature. Owen’s: Dulce et Decorum est, epitomises the after-Somme views of many people, especially those directly involved in the war. It is a parody of Pope’s ignorant view of war.
In terms of literature, the changing view is shown very directly by Vera Brittain, whose own jingoistic view changed when she lost her love and brother in the war. She wrote ‘Testament of Youth’ after her views changed which conveys the horrors of war very poignantly.
Including context in exam answers
I think there is need for caution when including contextual information based on what I have written above. By all means research the themes more deeply, as I have provided only a basic outline of certain prominent themes in literature. It may also be worth your while to research biographies of writers such as Wilfred Owen, which would give some context to their writings, which will certainly help if their texts are among the unseen attachments in the exam. It is very useful to refer to your historical knowledge in answers, for example: if you are asked to contrast authors views of trench life in pieces such as ‘Blackadder goes forth’ and ‘Suicide in the trenches’, it is always going to help to compare both with the factual, retrospective view of war. In some way, I am certain what I have written is going to prove useful, somewhere or somehow… I hope it helps, and good luck.