A war in words: Sharp Street by Robert J Bell

Many times in the past, I have combined my love of cycling with tracing some remarkable routes and events that have changed the course of history, for better or worse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2007, one such ride took me around the battlefields and war cemeteries of Flanders and the Somme, the scene of many devastating battles during WWI, and witness to a level of carnage that had never before been seen in time of war. I took with me the names and locations of the fallen relatives of several friends and colleagues, giving me the opportunity to pay them my respects and to read, graveside, some of the most significant verses written by war poets such as John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and others.

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P.E.Stubbs, former pupil of Kimbolton School, buried at Thiepval.

In the background, I had been aware of the misfortunes suffered by the Pals Battalions, but it was six years later that I picked up Sharp Street by Robert J Bell and discovered in detail the massive impact suffered by local communities. Rob cannot be compared to the war poets mentioned above. He has penned his verses in the 21st century, as a poet historian, with the benefit of hindsight and extensive research, but he found his inspiration in the faded, forgotten monument to the 140 fallen in one street alone in Hull:  Sharp Street. sharpstreetWe discover that whole communities were torn apart because whole battalions had been formed by ‘pals’ and neighbours from the same communities, and sometimes from the same street, and when calamity struck on the battlefield, hundreds could be killed, leaving as many widowed mothers and wives, and many more fatherless children back at home. The consequences were horrendous……..so horrendous, in fact, that the methods of recruitment had to be radically altered during the remaining years of the war.

Rob’s collection of poems is no ordinary collection. He uses his sources intelligently to provide a narrative of the war, through the eyes and experiences of the many brave soldiers  from Hull who had suffered and died. But, of course, this was not unique to Hull…….this was repeated across the country, leaving whole neighbourhoods decimated and in mourning.

THIEPVAL

Thiepval, memorial to some 70,000 fallen soldiers

If I were to pick out just one page of the book that stopped me in my tracks, it might not win the author any accolades for originality, but the “First Postcard Home” imaginatively conveys the utter fear and desolation of a young boy soldier, stuck for words and lacking the skill to write anything of length, as he awaits the moment when he has to ‘go over the top’ with his comrades:

My Dearest Lily,

Jimmy.

Somewhere-in-France

And as I read “An end is beginning”, words from T S Eliot’s Fourth Quartet “Little Gidding” came to mind: What we call the beginning is often the end, And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from……….And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.

How many of those young soldiers, returning home battle-weary and shell-shocked, never expecting to see home again, struggled to recognize the once familiar contours of the place where they had grown up? The likelihood of surviving trench warfare was once summed up succinctly by a 93 year old veteran when he said: “My chances of surviving another week, at the age of 93, are infinitely greater than when I was 19 and in the trenches”.

Click here to buy your copy of Sharp Street by Robert J. Bell.

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About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on April 9, 2013, in Book reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. It’s so easy to forget the past. Thanks for the reminder. It brought tears to my eyes.

  2. My grandfather was there, Frank, and also wrote moving daily letters to his mother and a diary, which we have in the family. I too have ridden around there, particularly on the Belgian side. The Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth Hall in Ypres is particularly recommended.

    • I agree, Richard, the Cloth Hall museum is a very moving and eloquent reminder of the horrors of WW1, but I would love to go back to see it after its recent refurbishment (in readiness for the big 2014 anniversary).

  3. A Hull Pal

    A look captured for ever, a look of a postman, baker, printer, son, husband

    What thoughts then as his eyes look out 96 years ago?

    Only silence now broken with the gentle sound of bird song as I look and wonder

    It came in an instant with brown mud and spurting blood

    Now just a ploughed field or grassy rise

    A cramped terrace off Newland Avenue, the telegram, the pain

    The back room then a shrine now a new generation tweet and Facebook

    A name carved for ever

    K A Meadows 2013

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