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.
In 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.
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. We 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.
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,
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.