Thoughts on “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Since I missed the class discussion on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” I wanted to share a couple of my thoughts on this incredible piece. This poem is one of the main works people think of when World War One literature is brought up because it draws the audience into the experience of war. The fast pace has always struck me because it is remarkably disorienting and anxiety-inducing. Alliteration like “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,” and consonance with the repetition of “ing” throughout the poem, but particularly with “guttering, choking, drowning” almost takes the audience’s breath away as the soldiers are struggling to breathe. The idea of a lack of breath continues as even his dreams about the horror is “smothering.” Owen engages all of the senses to depict the horrific experience of being on the front, but to fully appreciate them I think the poem needs to be read more than once. The first time everyone reads the poem, they of course focus on the striking words “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” but on this reading of the poem I found myself noticing more of the ways he focuses on loss of senses, such as “deaf even to the hoots/Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.” As the poem nears the end, the pace slows a little and the most notable aspect becomes the bitter tone in the final stanza. The speaker addresses the audience directly; he does not blame some higher power or government for what happened, but rather each and every person who allows the war to happen. “If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace/…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest” is slower than the early stanzas and vividly creates a harsh tone meant to cause guilt and point out the injustice which occurred. Beyond the stylistic excellence Owen displays, his powerful word choice is to me what really makes this poem a masterpiece. Any poet could have used alliteration or written with a fast pace, but the word choice sets individual poets apart. Language like “An ecstasy of fumbling,” “like a devil’s sick of sin,” “under a green sea,” and the entirety of the last three lines are what makes this poem relentlessly stick with me every time I read it. Poetry, especially when written by brilliant minds like Wilfred Owen, seems to me to be an even more effective way to describe the war experience than novels because people did not get the chance to read a plot synopsis on the back, read an introduction, or have an exposition to war. From nurses to ambulance drivers to soldiers to those on the homefront, everyone was thrown into something they were not prepared for. Have you guys been more moved by the poetry or the novels we read? (I know it’s hard to pick they are both impactful in their own ways, just curious if anyone does have a preference!)

Yet Another Way Women Were Involved in The Great War

I was watching the Netflix show The Defeated about Post WWII Berlin and an untrained police force in the American sector(pretty graphic show, but really good and for fans of Friday Night Lights it stars Taylor Kitsch aka Tim Riggins) and the captain of the new police station is a woman. The depiction of her breaking barriers made me interested in how many women were involved in this kind of work during the first World War. In both our readings and the special missions, we have seen how women served as nurses, VAD’s, on the homefront, and even as soldiers, but I found some interesting information on female spies in the war to expand on what Bella talks about in the Darling Lili movie review. I read a transcript of an interview of Tammy Proctor, author of Female Intelligence: Women in Espionage in the First World War. In the interview, Proctor discusses Mata Hari, Edith Cavell, “The Lady Doctor,” and Girl Guides’ role in the war. Hari was not an overly successful spy as she did not pass a great deal of information and did not have clear loyalties, playing France and Germany off against one another, but the myths surrounding her are fascinating. After the French government executed her for espionage, rumors like her surviving execution and being responsible for the death of 50,000 men spread across Europe. Hari’s model for spies was followed by Edith Cavell, who was also executed for being a spy even though she was not really a spy. Cavell ran a nurse training school which turned into an escape network for allied soldiers and while some people in this network she created were involved in intelligence gathering, Cavell herself was never engaging in that side. Proctor notes these two women were used to contrast one another, with Cavell as the revered martyr in propaganda and Hari as the treacherous seductress. “The Lady Doctor” seems to have had more success than Hari and Cavell as her identity was never uncovered, at least by the allied soldiers. This mysterious figure is known for her German spy training camp and Proctor explains she represents a slightly different persona than either Cavell or Hair because she is known for being the sadistic and seductive spy. 

The part of this interview I found the most interesting was Proctor’s discussion on Girl Guides and their role in British intelligence. The War Office initially hired Boy Scouts to deliver messages, but they were soon replaced by Girl Guides because the young boys were “too difficult to manage.” Girls in this role ranged from ages 14-18, so the war office had children running messages and patrolling to gather intelligence for the M15. These girls, along with the thousands of other women who served in British intelligence during the war, were turned away after the war’s conclusion and prohibited from serving there. Interestingly, the war office purposely hired young women because they hoped they would not ask for permanent positions because they would be getting married and staying at home with their families. Overall, this was a really interesting article to dive into this unique role women played in World War I especially when thinking of it in the context of how their role expanded and grew in World War II.

Works Cited

Smith, Amanda. “Women Spies of WW1…” Radio National, New York University Press, 4 Nov. 2011.

Girl Guides in The Great War

Potential Book Recommendation?

I was scrolling through my best friend’s goodreads today and I saw a book which would tie in well with this class, especially what we have been discussing recently. It is called Lovely War by Julie Berry and it ties in Greek mythology with World War One. From what I can gather, in the story the Greek goddess Aphrodite tells the stories of four different people in World War One to Hephaestus and Ares. A pianist, a soldier with dreams of being an architect, a famous muscian, a Belgian singer, and a famous muscian about to join the 15th New York Infantry(an all African-American regiment) are followed in the war. It seems like a really interesting combination of a lot of what we discuss in class as it handles the war robbing young people of their futures, race issues, romance in the war, and the inevitably of war(as Aphrodite telling the story in a Manhatten hotel room during the height of WWII. No promises the book is any good, but the goodreads reviews are solid so I will probably give it a read since it seems it could be worth it!

The tie in not only reminds me of what we discused in class, but made me reflect on the relationship between Greek mythology and the Great War in general. Beyond the many allusions, like the last name of Jason as a representation of a mythological hero, people look to mythology to try to undersand the war. The fairly recent Wonder Woman film was the first thing to come to mind because it is a good example of how/why mythology and war tie into together. War, especially the Great War, can sometimes just be too terrible to comprehend and people have to look to bigger than life reasons for it. In Wonder Woman, the characters blame the Greek God Ares for the War assuming humans could never create such horrific conflict on their own. Some blame God, others came up with twisted excuses like saying it is because of “sins” humanity(other wise known as giving people basic human rights). I just think it is interesting to evaluate how war impacts the human mind and how people search for reasons behind tragedy.

The Forbidden Zone Thoughts

After finishing The Forbidden Zone, I took some time to reflect on my experience as a reader. There is some chronological structure given to the fragmented pieces of the novel as we know Borden started in Belgium in the first half of the collection and was in the Somme for the second half. However, these stories could all be read and understood independently so does order even really matter? There are certain stories which really delivered unique emotional impacts through content, language, or style. For instance, no matter where “Rosa” is located in the text, it is a memorable fragment of the collection. However, there are also a few stories I believe especially impacted me because of where in the collection I read them. “The Two Gunners,” for instance, stands out to me as a story I cannot stop thinking about, and I cannot help but wonder whether it stands out to me because it is the last story I read or if it is the last story because of particular emotional impact or the unique figures depicted. If “The Two Gunners” was in the middle, would I remember it the way I do? If “Enfant de Malheur,”(a beautiful story, but one I had to reread to really remember because it was in between “The Beach” and “Rosa” ) was at the end of the collection, would I instead be haunted by “‘He is safe'”(61) instead of “‘A1 at Llyod’s Madam”(112)? I will never know. In my postmodern women writers class last year, we all read a book with two stories but half the copies had one first and the other half had a reverse order and we discussed how we will never truly experience reading the opposite one first. I think a similar thing can be applied here. To me, the order I read the stories in mattered. Maybe for other people it didn’t make a difference, I just think it is an interseting way to look at the collection.

Riley Smith’s Review of Sergeant York (1941)

The film Sergeant York is based on the life of Alvin C. York’s 1928 autobiography Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary. The real Alvin York repeatedly refused producer Jesse Lasky’s requests to make the movie, but York eventually agreed so he could use the profits to finance an interdenominational Bible school under the one condition that Gary Cooper star in it. The source material being an autobiography and the focus on Cooper highlight an interesting aspect of the novel; unlike many World War One works where individuality is taken away, this film focuses more on York as a person than the war or any groups as a whole. Sergeant York is thought to be a fairly accurate representation of the real story because the people it is based on pushed for accuracy. The movie was very successful, ranking as the highest grossing movie of 1941 and a press release dated July 2, 1941 states that Sergeant York was the first motion picture to be made into a stage play. At the 14th Academy Awards, the film was widely recognized with many nominations and two awards as Gary Cooper won Oscars Best Actor and William Holmes won Best Film Editing. 

In the beginning of the movie, set in spring 1916, Alvin York causes trouble in town and drinks too much; his mother, Mrs. York, is very worried about him and asks the pastor to talk to him. After almost making a life-altering mistake, Alvin is struck by lightning and becomes a devout Christian. When he is drafted, he faces a religious dilemma and applies to be a conscientious objector. The movie then follows him on his journey in the war after his application is denied. Overall, I found the movie to be well done. Since the movie was made in 1941, the lack of advanced production technique puts a lot of focus on the actors. Cooper has an impressive performance as he is very believable in the small-town role as well as a competent soldier. One of the best parts of the film is how genuine his connections with the other residents of Pall Mall appear. They are a tight knit community and this is an interesting contrast to what we see on the warfront. However, there is not as heavy a focus on York’s bond with his fellow soldiers as most scenes involving them are primarily for comic relief and there are not many emotionally impactful scenes where he interacts with other soldiers. Compelling source material and strong acting create an endearing combination of characters in the film; while York stands out as the one audiences feel the most connected to, his fiance, pastor, and mother contribute to the storyline and deliver the film’s emotional impact. 

While the movie is primarily set in Pall Mall, which is located in northern Tennessee near the Kentucky border, it was filmed in various locations in California. The small town setting is important because York has a deep connection to the land and the natural world has a large role in his life, such as his desire to buy land, and he goes into nature to reflect on going to war. He says “Fellow’s got to have his roots somewhere,” reinforcing how important his home is, and therefore how important the setting is. There are not a lot of extra elements added to the setting, which forces audiences to appreciate nature’s role as well as the acting. The war scenes were created with the help of a military technical director as there were specific aspects of the Battle of Argonne the producers wanted to include. York’s strategy to capture the German prisoners, which mirrored how he hunted Turkeys at home, was replicated to be as accurate as possible. Throughout the film, the lighting is fairly dark, which makes the flashes more jarring, especially when York is struck by lightning. The set enhances the already engaging storyline which traces York’s journey in faith, love, and war. When I watched the film, I was surprised by how little screen time the war has in the film as he does not actually go to war until over halfway through, but ultimately this emphasizes his humanity and shows how war pulls young men out of their plans. 

The movie begins with an on-screen text message thanking those who consented to be in it and states they pray for a day without war. But, since the movie came out right before the US entered WWII, it actually increased enlistment as men signed up for the army right after viewing the film. This begins a chain of conflicting messages within the movie as it can both be seen as anti and pro war. There are symbolic messages about the war’s senselessness. For instance, showing York and all the men going about their day to day lives in their small town with working towards land, interacting with each other, etc is an excellent way to demonstrate how the war is a politicians war, not the war of the men actually fighting it. Mrs. York and her daughter discuss the war as the daughter asks “Ma what are they-a fighting for ” and she replies “I don’t a-rightly know,” which is a symbol of how little people understood of the war, especially those in the country removed from politics. The American perspective, especially one from a man in a small town in Tennessee is an interesting added layer because Americans were traveling across the sea to fight the war so it felt especially useless since it did not even really protect America. As York leaves home, reassuring his family he will return, one cannot help but think of all the men who made that same promise and never came back. Furthermore, York’s religious views are certainly anti war, especially his epiphany as in the beginning of the film he participates in a fist fight over nothing serious(which can be seen as a microcosm for the lack of purpose in the war), but then completely changes his ways even forgiving the men who swindled him. However, there are more subtle pro war themes as a result of production choices. All of the soldiers in the film look like men; the casting does not accurately represent how young many of the men were. Other pro-war elements in the film include how little of the film is actually dedicated to York in battle, very few graphic deaths, and the portrayal of York’s awards after fighting. The movie’s idealized ending most likely contributed to the increased enlistment as Sergeant York is not injured and does not exhibit any severe traumatic effects from the war as the government rewards his actions with the land, which was his lifelong dream, as the movie ends with York and his fiancee preparing for their new life. In some respects it is sweet and enjoyable, but ultimately it is not realistic and could be extremely damaging for a questioning young man to see as it would encourage him to go to war. The movie is a bit lengthy, but is worth the watch for anyone interested in movies based on true stories. 

Works Cited

“Sergeant York.” (1941) – Turner Classic Movies, Turner Classics, 2022, 

For some more information on conscientious objectors in the Great War, check out this article!,were%20known%20as%20conscientious%20objectors.

Riley Smith’s Reading Questions for 2/24

Question 1:

Books IV and V narrate the transition from the tumultuous war to Catherine and Frederic’s blissful time together in Switzerland before they are torn apart by her death. What role does their domestic existence in the mountains play in the novel? How do their identities change throughout Books IV and V as they make their escape to Switzerland? Consider Catherine’s statement “It might be short. Then we’d both be alike. Oh, darling, I want you so much I want to be you too”(270) and Frederic’s “Knotting my tie and looking in the glass I looked strange to myself in the civilian clothes”(233). 

Question 2:

While Catherine is usually the one to contribute the more profound statements in dialogue, Frederic contributes several wise statements himself as the narrator. On page 226(in my copy), soon after the two reunite, Frederic has a very abrupt, but intense thought. 

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry”(226).  

What impact do the abruptness and stylistic elements, such as repetition, have? Does your interpretation of the passage change after rereading it now that you have finished the novel? Would you qualify Catherine as very good, very gentle, very brave, or none of those?

Question 3:

As several people discussed on here before, the novel’s opening paragraph is a beautiful use of simple, descriptive language. 

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. The bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves”(1). 

This short, final paragraph leaves more unsaid, but delivers a strong emotional impact and proves Hemingway’s brilliance. 

“But after I got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain”(297). 

Compare the first and last paragraphs to one another now that you have finished the novel. What does each convey and how do they play off each other?

Bonus Questions: 

A: When I read this in high school, my teacher felt there were three people who taught Frederic about love: Catherine(obviously), the priest(I went to Catholic school, so naturally he had to be included), and Count Greffi(no one in my class even remembered him when she first said his name). At the end of the novel, he has been impacted by a range of people and events to reflect on as he walks alone in the rain. What is the most important thing each of these people taught him? Is there anyone else you would include on this list? 

B: When Henry sees his child, he says “I had no feeling for him. He did not seem to have anything to do with me. I felt no feeling of fatherhood”(291). How important is this statement? What does it tell us about Frederic? Do you have any theories about what happens to Frederic after the novel? What would it have been like if his child had survived and Catherine died, or the other way around(given she would have probably felt a stronger sense of grief over the child’s death)?

Catherine/Frederic vs. Nellie/Roy

We spoke briefly in class today about the parallels between A Farewell to Arms and the other works we have read this semester and finishing up my essay on Roy and Nellie in Not So Quiet made me reflect some more on that. In my copy, under the scene where Catherine talks about her fiancee, I wrote “I hope Nellie talks to Roy like this.” After coming across this again, I think her complete honesty is really appealing as a model for how Nellie would communicate her trauma. For instance, she says “he was a very nice boy. He was going to marry me and he was killed in the Somme…You see I didn’t care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t say anything”(23). For a woman of her time, this honesty to her romantic partner is unique. It is an interesting display of how the war can just completely remove certain expected methods of decorum. I obviously hope Roy would not respond to her in the callous, distant manner Henry speaks to Catherine, but at least putting it all out there in a way like this would be important for her to at least have some shot at coping. Would Nellie even be able to have the emotional connection Catherine does though? Is Roy so broken himself he would not have the emotional capacity to do any better than Henry? I think it is also interesting to think about the parallel that this could have been Nellie. Roy, a boy she grew up around and knew for a long time as Catherine knew her fiancee, could have died and she could have kept on going in the war and eventually met a new man. Maybe thinking of Catherine as an alternate reality version of Nellie will help me view her in a ore positive light.

World’s Most Hated Commandant

While I was rereading the section about Skinny and Frost earlier to answer one of Bella’s reading questions, I came across the line“‘No girl attacks another for merely being catty, and Toshington is not the catty type’”(128) Tosh repeats from her meeting with Mrs. Bitch and it made me think in more depth about one of our class discussions. The word “catty” is interesting to me as I think of it as something purposefully and unnecessarily mean, which I think actually describes Mrs. Bitch quite well. I would like to take this word out of this scene and apply it to the more general problems with Mrs. Bitch in the book, specifically where she herself crosses the line between strict and catty. She is absolutely awful throughout the book, so it is hard to figure out where exactly she is a strict, strong leader and when she is just cruel. Dr. Scanlon mentioned in class that our sections had very different interpretations of Mrs. Bitch; my section(2:00) put her in a broad context and examined why she had to act the way she does, but Dr. Scanlon said the 12:30 section absolutely hated her. While there are a lot to choose from, can anyone point out the one thing she says or does which pushes her completely over the edge and makes her unredeemable? If you are on the other side of thought about her, is there a specific moment you can pick which leads you to believe she is better than we think or is it more about what we know about how difficult that era was for women in power?

Postwar Facemasks: A Desperate Attempt to Comfort Veterans

In the 2:00 section today, we briefly discussed the popularity of masks for soldiers who suffered facial injuries as a result of numerous traumas in the Great War. From what I could gather based on my research, it was a relatively small but very impactful field. Soldiers faced a long journey after an injury as new medical techniques resulted in higher survival rates, but survival could come with severe scarring. While medical techniques were improving, they were far behind where we are today and the facial reconstruction field aced constant challenges when treating soldiers. Previously, the field was almost exclusively focused on returning function and form to soldiers’ faces with little focus on appearance. Sir Harold Gillies became a leader in the field of facial reconstruction as he was among the first to put an emphasis on the aesthetic portion of plastic surgery for soldiers by working with artists to imitate a man’s face before his injury. While his work was revolutionary for the time and he made a significant impact, he was limited in how much he could do for a patient. As writer Allison C. Meier puts it “medicine had not caught up to the advancements of war,” which I found to be an incredibly interesting comment on how war disrupts normal life and catches everyone, in every line of work, off guard and forces them to adjust accordingly.

Because of these medical limitations, artists began creating masks for soldiers with facial deformities to help them cope with life after the war. A facial disfigurement was considered the most traumatic result of service during the war and, as one can image, there were a great deal of psychological factors accompanying it. The Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department was created by Francis Derwent Wood, an artist who wanted to help patients he met while working as an orderly at the 3rd London General Hospital. His work consisted of metallic masks, modeled to resemble a soldier’s face before injury, were designed to be lighter and more permanent than the rubber prosthetics. Wood believed his masks could offer the same psychological benefits as plastic surgery for those veterans whose injuries were too severe for surgery because they had an opportunity to regain their confidence. Wood was followed by Anna Ladd, who spoke with Wood and went onto open a Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris; Ladd had even more successful artistic results than Wood. Tremendous effort went into these masks by both Wood and Ladd’s teams as one mask could take a month to make. Ladd created hand-painted copper masks, with a process beginning with a plaster cast being taken and slowly transformed into a thin mask weighing between four and nine ounces(depending on if the mask covered half or all of a patient’s face) held in place by spectacles. Some of Ladd’s most famous techniques are painting the mask while a man was wearing it so she could get as close to his skin color as possible and using real hair to create details like eyebrows, eyelashes, and mustaches. Ladd created 185 masks, and while there is not specific number, one can assume Wood created even more as his department was open longer and his masks did not take as long to make; unfortunately, their impressive work does not even come close to treating all facial injuries suffered in the war. While a mask could not restore function or allow for expression, soldiers expressed immense gratitude for the comfort they found in hiding their injuries. The masks created by both Wood and Ladd represent society’s attempt to recover from the the Great War; people did not want to look directly at the cost of war and the men who actually fought did not want their reflections to be a constant reminder of the horror. My summary does not even come close to providing all the information on this, but I hope this gives a little more background on it for some people! If you are interested in looking into it further, there are a lot of great articles on the topics, starting with the ones I cite below.

Anna Ladd working with a soldier
Anna Ladd with two soldiers wearing her masks

A photograph of some of Ladd’s plaster casts

P.S. My rabbit hole on this topic started because Dr. Scanlon’s description of the masks made me think of Phantom of the Opera and I wanted to know if there was an relation between the two as I was uncertain of when Phantom was first written. Phantom of the Opera was written in 1925, so about 7-8 years after Wood and Ladd produced face masks for wounded soldiers. The idea of the phantom’s mask hiding something terrifying is a sad context to view the reception of the masks in as it is further proof the wounded could never really fit back into society and probably faced the same feelings of societal exile as the phantom does.

Works Cited

Alexander, Caroline. “Faces of War.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Feb. 2007,

Meier, Allison. “How Masks of Mutilated WWI Soldiers Haunted Postwar Culture.” JSTOR Daily, JSTOR, 19 Nov. 2018,