Dubbed over: Frank McNally on the missing accents in English war commemorations

An Irishman’s Diary for 'They Shall Not Grow Old' and the missing voices

A frame from the documentary film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The soldier carrying a wounded comrade through trenches at the Battle of the Somme may have been Charlie Brennan from Finglas.

A frame from the documentary film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The soldier carrying a wounded comrade through trenches at the Battle of the Somme may have been Charlie Brennan from Finglas.

 

A minor annoyance of Peter Jackson’s otherwise magnificent war documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was the absence in it (to my ears) of voices from anywhere other than England. I know there were reasons for this, and that the New Zealand-born director had to work with what was available by way of archived audio.  

Even so, the effect tended to support something Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum, complained of in a Remembrance Day essay for the Financial Times

Lamenting the narrowness of commemorations in Britain, compared with those on mainland Europe, he wrote: “As the empire has shrunk, so, it seems, has our remembering. [There] is scarcely ever mention of other allies, French, Russian, or American, let alone of soldiers on the other side.”

But MacGregor – a Scot – might have gone further, because there has also long been a tendency on our neighbouring island to equate “Britain” with “England”. The film unwittingly perpetuated this, although in all other respects, Jackson’s colourised scenes brilliantly restored the soldiers’ humanity, rescuing them from the Charlie Chaplinesque caricatures in which for a century they had been trapped.

The anglicisation issue is as old as the war itself. Speaking of Charlies, I mentioned another one here recently – Charlie Brennan – a Finglas man who, his family are convinced, was the face in one of the most famous of all first World War film scenes, as he shouldered a dying comrade through trenches at the Battle of the Somme.

In many ways, Brennan’s face doesn’t fit the status of British war hero, conferred on the soldier by that few seconds of footage. Not only was he Irish, he was from a family of GAA-playing republicans, and was court-martialled later in the war for misbehaviour.

Competition to identify the man in the film as an ancestor has been fierce, with 100 different claims recorded by the Imperial War Museum. But Brennan’s service record (as Soldier RGA 48048), facial recognition analysis, and other details have left the family tantalisingly close to proving it was him. 

What might clinch it is some reference from contemporary books or newspapers. In which vein, I wondered recently if Geoffrey Malins, who co-directed the original Somme documentary, had left any clues in his 1920 book How I Filmed the War.

Alas, no. By his own admission, Malins was not a writer. He may also have had Van Gogh’s ear for dialogue. In any case, from his description of those chaotic scenes on June 1st, 1916, you wouldn’t guess there were any non-English soldiers involved.  

At one point, he asks a soldier on a stretcher if he’s “got a ‘blighty’?” (an injury that will see him shipped back to England). The man replies: “Yes, sir, rather sure Blighty for me”. Nearby, another casualty comments cheerfully: “I shan’t be able to play footer any more. Look!” Malins looks, and sees that the soldier has lost a foot.

Elsewhere, he describes watching the rescuers of the wounded man in the trench scene, as a “swine of a German blazed away at them with his machine gun”. Moments later, they pass through the trench, a “mass of perspiration”. But if the soldier who looks into the camera then was indeed Charlie Brennan, Malins does not give him a voice.

Accents aside, even the Irish language may have been spoken in the trenches on occasion. There was a time prior to 1914, at least, when the British army paid an Irish-speaking allowance to those recruiting and training men from the Gaeltacht. And we know that soldiers on the Western Front included the writer Liam O’Flaherty, an Aran Islander, seriously injured by a shell in 1917. O’Flaherty had started the war a trainee priest. But his experiences helped make him a communist. And I’m reminded of this now because a short story he wrote in the first zeal of that new faith has just resurfaced after almost a century.

The Discarded Soldier was written in 1925 for the Daily Worker, a radical New York newspaper where O’Flaherty’s brother Tom was a columnist. It describes a soldier going home (in his head) to die. But maybe because of its propagandising, it never made it into print again for 93 years.  

Then it was rediscovered by Jenny Farrell and others of the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society. They drew it to the attention of the Daily Worker’s successor, People’s World.   And now that paper has republished the story (peoplesworld.org/article/the-discarded-soldier/) as part of its commemorations of the centenary of the war to end all wars.

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