Vernon Scannell deserves the title of ‘War Poet’ (1922- 2007) . Saw active service in North Africa and in the D Day campaign. He was what was euphemistically called a ‘serial absconder’ , i.e a deserter, who served time in a military prison, and spent several years on the run when World War 2. His achievement including writing some superb poetry, and compelling auto-biography.
Scannell also made a vital contribution to keeping interest in World War 2 poetry alive in his 1976 book ‘ Not Without Glory- The Poets of the Second World War’ , though declined to give his own work a mention.
His 1987 account of his war service- ‘ Argument of Kings’ deserves as much as attention as Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ , or Robert Graves ‘ Goodbye To All That’.
This passage of ‘Argument of Kings’ , concerning his experience of the 1944 Normandy campaign, is a vital snapshot of being under enemy fire.
” The fury of artillery is a cold mechanical fury but its intent is personal.When you are under fire you are its sole target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at no one else. You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and your harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia…”
‘Argument of Kings ‘ supplants Scannell’s earlier autobiography ‘The Tiger and the Rose’ (1971) in offering more candid explanations of his desertion at Wadi Akarat, Tunisia,on 6th=7th April 1942 whilst serving with the 51st Highland Divisioan – using his Army name Private John Bain ;
“I just remember all those dead Seaforths lying out there, and our blokes going round, settling on them like fucking flies, taking their watches and wallets and Christ-knows-what and I just got up and walked. It was like a dream. Why didn’t anybody stop me? I just floated down that fucking hill like a ghost or the invisible man.”
Scannell was soon caught and sentenced to three years imprisonment in a military jail. He kept silent about the incident and sentence until 1987. As well as the publication of ‘ Argument of Kings’ , Vernon Scannell was a guest on Radio 4 ‘s Desert Island Discs, and disclosed his experiences.
In 2013 two books were published which have added to a evaluation of Scannell : ‘Walking Wounded -The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell’ by James Andrews Taylor, is a thorough examination of Scannell and goes into great detail about his war trauma which would now be called PTSD . Also his violent father, indifferent mother, his extensive drinking bouts which sometimes led to bar fights…..Scannell had spells as a professional boxer. Also Scannell’s violence towards women he was involved with were depicted in some detail. The second was ‘Deserter -The Last Untold Story of the Second World War ‘ by Charles Glass, which drew on Scannell’s prose and poetry quite sympathetically.
‘Walking Wounded ‘
” ….And then they came, the walking wounded
Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained.
Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead
And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks.
A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
No one was suffering from a lethal hurt,
They were not magnified by noble wounds,
There was no splendour in that company.
And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs
Imagination pauses and return
To see them walking still, but multiplied
In thousands now .And when heroic corpses
Turn slowly in their decorated sleep.
And every ambulance has disappeared
The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
And when recalled they must bears arms again. ”
Have reproduced the second half of the poem , first published in 1965 in an anthology of the name. The only one of Scannell’s poems to make it into the Salamander Trust’s 1995 anthology to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the VE day- ‘The Voice of War -Poems of the Second World War’ .
I doubt that the poem needs much analysis. The ‘Walking Wounded’ are those who are deemed to have wounds that they can either recover from . They haven’t become ‘heroic corpses’ and given ‘decorated sleep’ nor does time make the wounds better.
The importance of Vernon Scannell’s work is that we need to be reminded again of the ‘Pity of War’. to take a phrase from Wilfred Owen , when looking at World War 2. Understandably there’s a huge body of opinion to maintain that the conflict was a ‘just war’. There has not been the equivalent of ‘disenchantment’ like that there has been against World War 1. It took decades for Scannell to be open about the scenes he saw in World War 2, whilst the writers and poets of World War 1 had a much stronger cultural and political impetus to depict their experiences ten years later. A final word from Vernon Scannell from his collection ‘The Winter Man’
‘Six Reasons for Drinking’
“I drink to forget
But he remembers everything , the lot;
What hell war was,
Causes Best Forgot “.