Laureate of the Trenches

David Jones’s service at the front inspired an epic poem about World War I, “In Parenthesis”. Long neglected, it is ripe for rediscovery

Drawing Board History Literature Military
David Jones, photographed at home by Mark Gerson, 1965

Blundering in the darkness of no man’s land some minutes after midnight on July 10, 1916, Private David Jones felt his legs knocked from under him. Shot through the calf by a German rifle bullet, his left boot filling with blood, he sank to his knees on the dry earth of Mametz Wood.

Crawling along the ground, the sky lit by flashes of shellfire, he made his way past the corpses of the men of his battalion, waiting for the stretcher bearers to find him. Later, as he boarded the hospital ship St David, which would take him back to England, a fair-haired Canadian nurse bent over and, kissing his face, said: “You ought to be in kindergarten.” He ought not to have been there at all.

When war broke out in August 1914, David Walter Jones was a pale, undersized, moon-faced boy of 19, recently graduated from Camberwell College of Art with a portfolio of sketches and a notebook of unpublished poems.

He was sensitive, bookish and shy, with a romantic’s interest in the past: The Canterbury Tales, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Norse sagas, the Arthurian legends. A printmaker-poet, the unlikeliest of warriors.

If Jones had wondered in the summer of 1914 how he might make a living as an artist, the war offered an answer of sorts. With his mind full of chivalric knights and cavalry charges, he sought admission to the Artists’ Rifles, a London regiment. The doctor who examined Jones briskly dismissed all romantic notions. His chest measurement was declared “deficient” and Jones was sent back to his watercolour portfolio and his parents’ house in Brockley.

By the New Year, however, heavy losses in France had forced the relaxation of physical requirements and so on January 2, 1915, the pigeon-chested Private Jones enlisted in the London Welsh Battalion. Over the next three years, this hapless art student, “grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair”, would be transformed into a battle-hardened Tommy, a veteran of the trenches.

His experiences of the Western Front, and particularly of the Somme and the struggle for Mametz Wood, would scar him for the rest of his life and inspire the greatest epic poem of that conflict: In Parenthesis.

Detail from ”Portrait of a Maker”, 1932, oil on canvas

Today, the poem is little read. It is deemed too long — 225 pages in the Faber edition — too difficult, too abstract. Due to its “scale and complexity”, it is excluded from the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Its absence from the anthologies-even in extracts-ensures against its discovery by new readers.

Next year, with the centenary of 1914, we will rehearse Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon’s ready lines “dulce et decorum est” and “everyone suddenly burst out singing”, but few will read Jones’s haunted and haunting account of the three years he spent on the Western Front. By virtue of its length, it has more in common with Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front than with the six-stanza poems of the anthologies which offer only fleeting snapshots of the front.

No other poem of that war gives such a sustained account of young lives wasted in the trenches. Jones spent 117 weeks at the front — longer than any other war poet. He served in trenches and dug-outs for two months longer than Edmund Blunden, six months longer than Isaac Rosenberg, twice as long as Sassoon and Ivor Gurney and more than twice as long as Owen and Graves.

Jones differed from these men in another crucial respect. Unlike Blunden, Sassoon, Graves and Owen, who were all junior officers, he never rose above the rank of private.

It is Jones’s military ordinariness, however, that gives the poem its power. The hero of In Parenthesis is the everyman soldier, the Cockney Tommy with blisters on his feet and a uniform soaked to the vest with February rain.

From the opening of the poem in December 1915 to its close in July 1916, we are embedded with a platoon of men. We follow them from fumbled rifle drills on the parade grounds of England to the blasted landscape of the Western Front.

It is a poem about the relentless foot-slogging, sand-bagging, rat-shooting, duckboard-laying, sleepless grind of trench warfare. It is a tedious, repetitive rut violently punctuated with deafening artillery fire, the percussive explosions of shells and the right-you-‘orrible-lot bark of a newly-promoted sergeant-major. Though it is not directly — the poem shifts its viewpoint between the men of a platoon and their commanding officers — Jones said that he had witnessed everything described in the poem.

Detail from the frontispiece for “In Parenthesis”, 1937, watercolour and ink on paper 

Jones, who was slight, who felt the cold, who had often played sick to get off school, felt the physical hardships of war keenly. When he enlisted, he was not quite 5ft 7in and weighed around seven stone. His pack, hung about like a Christmas tree with mess tin, compass, penknife and entrenching tool, weighed five-and-a-half stone. On the march from the battalion’s training ground on Salisbury Plain to Southampton in December 1915, a platoon mate carried Jones’s rifle, taking it from him with the words “poor little sod”.

Conditions in France were infinitely worse. That Christmas, as the platoon marched from Le Havre to the front, the country received more rain than in any December for 39 years.

The physical discomforts of marching are a mainstay of the poem: the weeping blisters, the socks stuffed under pack straps to relieve chafing and the endless adjusting of rifle slings, buckles, belts and buttons. The poem complains of the entrenching tools slung from belts “going on bruising, however much you re-adjusted the brasses”. Worse still are the boots-especially when new. The men despair of the way “weeping blisters stick to the hard wool of grey-government socks”. At the front, though relieved of the aches of marching, there is the cold and damp to contend with. The early-morning fogs are as penetrating as mustard gas. Jones writes of a “cloying drift-damp . . . It hurts you in the bloody eyes, it grips chill and harmfully and rasps the sensed membrane of the throat; it’s raw cold, it makes you sneeze-christ how cold it is.”

In such conditions, comfort comes from a cup of tea served in an enamel cup, the loose leaves tied in a scrap of sandbag. On the dampest days, when any kindling is wet through, fires remain stubbornly unlit and the men engage in jealous bartering over mess tins of lukewarm water. The poem asks: “How do you get hot water in this place of all water-all cold water up to the knees.”

Then there’s the food: bully beef and ration biscuits, bread “ill-baked and sodden in transit” and, if you’re lucky, “one piece of cheese of uncertain dimension, clammy, pitted with earth and very hairy”. Few things give the men greater rapture than the arrival of a Fortnum and Mason’s hamper to celebrate a lieutenant’s 21st birthday.

If anything makes the front bearable it is the company of platoon mates. In Jones’s regiment, half the soldiers were Cockneys, noisy, joshing, swearing men who spoke execrable franglais. The poem touchingly recreates the night-time comradeship, the echoed “goodnight; goodnight, chum; bon swores, cheriees; night sergeant; night chaps” as the men bed down on dug-out slats.

They keep their spirits up with snatches of song: “The British Grenadiers” and “Johnny’s so long at the fair”. When off duty they suck Mackintosh’s toffees and litter the ground with greaseproof paper twists. In moments of extreme boredom they lob margarine tins into flooded shell craters and watch them float like children’s sailing boats.

Detail from “Life in the Trenches: Sketch B”, 1936, ink on paper  

Naturally any food, whether toffees, bully beef or margarine, has to be protected from the rats who thrive in what Jones calls this “amphibious paradise”. When the artillery barrages over no man’s land stop for long enough, the men hear the “scrut-scrut-scrut” of the rats patiently working their way through corpses and rations.

But these privations, the damp, the cold, the mean, congealed rations, the rats, are as nothing compared to the screaming violence of modern warfare. Soon after Jones’s arrival in France, his illusions about knights-errant, quests and holy grails were shattered.

In December 1915, at Riez Bailleul, a cluster of small farms not far from the front, Jones first witnessed the explosion of a long-range heavy shell. It was to provide one of the most vivid passages of In Parenthesis.

It opens with the most banal of incidents. The young Private Ball, fumbling in his pocket for a match, scatters its contents on the ground, among them a front-door key to the family home in Stondon Park — a south London suburb. He chides himself: “Stupid Ball, it’s no use here.” Then, preparing to turn in for an hour’s sleep before reveille, he hears the whistling of a shell.  

“Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came — bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming . . . all bursting out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through.”

It tears the landscape apart, turning a field of beetroots to red pulp. In the aftermath, ears ringing, the horrified, uncomprehending Ball can do no more than fret that his mess tin has been lost in the blast.

Jones loathed the mechanisation of warfare. He believed that while there was nobility in fighting at close range with a lance, a sword, even a bayonet, there was something inhuman about unleashing death from the skies. The Somme battle marked a turning point: the end of the individual rifleman and the beginning of “wholesale slaughter”, the “sinister” shell and the insidious creep of gas.

It is with the Somme offensive and the battle for Mametz Wood that the poem reaches its climax. In chilling detail Jones describes the slow, expectant agony of waiting to go over the top: an officer’s announcement of “zero minus seven minutes”, an optimistic private cheerfully wondering “perhaps they’ll cancel it”, a young recruit who in his terror loses control of his bowels, and the platoon mate who tenderly wipes away his tears and lends him a stick of eau de cologne.

The assault on Mametz Wood took three days and the British forces succeeded in pushing back the enemy lines — but at huge cost. Jones’s battalion alone lost a third of its men, killed or wounded. 

The poem watches them as they fall. A private who married his sweetheart when last on leave is pierced through by a razor of shrapnel. One man, even as he bleeds to death, still fumbles with the wretched straps of his uniform, trying to loosen the choking buckle of his tin hat. Not far from his prone body lies the severed head of a private grinning “like the Cheshire cat”. It was images like this, grotesque, absurd and brutal, that would haunt Jones for decades.

The final pages follow one soldier, grievously wounded, crawling to some place of safety — as Jones himself did. We leave him calling for the stretcher bearers — “why don’t the bastards come?” — as the boots of the reserve units troop past on their way to annihilation.

The poem ends with Mametz Wood, but for Jones the war went on. Mametz saw him invalided back to England, but he returned to the front in late October 1917, just north of Ypres, then the area of most concentrated violence.

And so the routine of sandbags and shelling and cups of char resumed. It was the coldest winter in 50 years. Jones, who had always believed that he would survive the war, began to lose his nerve. “I felt the sands running out,” he later wrote.

In mid-February 1918, Jones came down with trench fever and was evacuated to a base hospital with a 105-degree temperature. There the pale printmaker with his deficient chest measurement came closer to death than he ever had in the field. He would not return to the front. Nor would he recover from those three years. Though he never called it shell shock, Jones was diminished and unmanned by all that he had seen.

Jones never married, never had children. He lived a monkish existence in a series of guest rooms and bedsits, which he referred to as his “dug-outs”. His prints, paintings and poems brought a small income but financially he relied on his parents and then on the generosity of friends and patrons. To the end of his life the clatter of a tea-tray or a foggy day would rend his nerves. Each July the horrors of the Somme and Mametz Wood would return, triggering debilitating insomnia.

If In Parenthesis was an attempt to exorcise these demons, it failed. The completion of the poem in 1932 brought a shattering nervous breakdown. It took five years for Jones to summon the courage to have it published. T.S. Eliot, who oversaw its publication by Faber, called it “a work of genius”.

Its title was an attempt to put into brackets all that had happened in those 117 weeks at the front. “The war itself was a parenthesis,” Jones wrote in his introduction to the poem. “How glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18.” But Jones, like so many other men of his generation, never did step outside the war’s brackets. In an interview given two years before he died at the age of 78, he confessed: “The memory of it is like a disease . . . I still think about it more than anything else.”

Next year, we will reach for Graves, Owen and Sassoon to make sense of what was suffered on the Western Front. But In Parenthesis alone does justice to the unrelenting nature of the war, the weeks, months and years lost to the routine of sandbags, entrenching tools and death. There is no witness more eloquent, angry, trench — damp and footsore than Private David Jones, the pale, “deficient” poet-painter made warrior by circumstance.