David Jones in the Great War, by Thomas Dilworth. Enitharmon Press.
Born in South London, the artist and poet David Jones nevertheless grew up a fervent Welsh patriot, absorbing the romantic epics of Welsh history with its battles and brave warriors. Hardly surprising then, that he should volunteer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers when the Great War broke out.
Thomas Dilworth takes us through Jones’s wartime life as if inviting the reader to be a third party to a conversation between friends, and indeed the book is largely the fruit of interviews with David Jones and his friends. Like other poets and former soldiers Jones never got the Great War out of his system and he suffered depression and breakdowns in the years that followed.
He had spent the war as a private, unlike university educated poets Sassoon, Brooke and Owen, who were seen as natural officers. Jones resisted promotion, preferring the company of the Welshmen and Cockneys in the ranks. An officer once encouraged him to apply for a commission, saying, ‘You’re an educated man. Where were you educated?’ At Jones’s reply, ‘Camberwell School of Art and Craft’, he fell silent and never again would Jones be considered for promotion.
Jones was not alone in becoming aware of the iniquities of the class system through his wartime experiences. He had chance to contrast British public school officers with the French alongside, where there was greater camaraderie and an officer could encourage his troops with ‘mes enfants’. He also served in Ireland after the Easter Rising, and became acutely aware of the contrast between Britain’s defence of ‘poor little Belgium’ and the oppressing of Irish aspirations.
Above all Jones was an artist and one who took opportunities to exercise his gift while at war. At times he was detailed to draw maps of battlefields for his superiors; of those that survive, few can be clearly reproduced, but Dilworth gives us many pencil sketches of broken buildings, battlefields, equipment and men. There were months when drawing his companions became too painful, knowing he might soon lose sight of them forever. There is a sketch of a robed and stoled priest, about to distribute Communion. Dilworth links this to a moment of epiphany for Jones, when he came across a Catholic celebration of Mass in a battered barn. Seeing his Irish companions transformed at their devotions was a step towards his conversion.
Just as that experience would have been impossible to explain back home, so too the privations of mud, rats, lice, noise, explosions, shells, smells, death that remained with Jones the rest of his life.
Thomas Dilworth is a warm companion to bring us to Jones and his subsequent poetry and art. Read this book, make friends with Jones, turn to his poetry, and let it speak.