As part of the University Library’s exhibition celebrating the 125th anniversary of Sir Arthur Bliss’s birth, and as a tribute to those whose lives were lost during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, we are showing a case which concentrates on Bliss’s experiences in that conflict. The Bliss archive contains not only the letters he wrote from the trenches to his father, Francis Bliss and his brothers Kennard and Howard, but also pages from the personal diary he kept whilst at the Front.
“The crash of a European War on our very beaches sucked me into its undertow without my ever probing the consequences. My action was purely automatic, sparked off by a feeling of outrage at the cause of the war, of a debt owed, and added to this was the spirit of adventure and the heady excitement which the actions of my own contemporaries engendered. Since then the ever-deepening horrors of wars have made the very word the most hideous in our language, but at the time its vague unknown possibilities made it remote from realistic definition.”
So wrote Bliss in his volume of memoirs As I Remember [M501.c.95.92] . He signed up as soon as War was declared, and after a period of training, was posted to the 13th Royal Fusiliers, sailing, eventually, for France in July 1915. He saw a year’s miserable service at the front line before the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. “On the night of July 6th we moved to the front line trenches…In my diary I wrote ‘the scene of confusion looks like Hampstead Heath on a Bank Holiday painted by a madman.’” During the engagement which followed, Bliss was shot in the ankle and, eventually, returned to England. It was whilst he was back in England that his brother Kennard was killed on the Somme on 28th September 1916. Bliss was devastated, writing to Edward Dent “I almost feel glad that a person such as he was spared a longer existence in such awful surroundings”.
He was not to return to France until the autumn of 1918, spending the time following his recovery training officer cadets in Bath and being re-trained himself having re-enlisted, this time in the Grenadier Guards. Demobilsation followed, eventually, in early 1919.
The effect of his experiences in WWI stayed with him – hardly surprisingly – for the rest of his life. Bliss himself was quite open about this, writing once again in his memoirs as he recalls the time before the composition of Morning Heroes:
“Although the War had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares: they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the Armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on until extinction …I was now at last decisively to exorcise this fear.” The work is dedicated to Kennard and “all other comrades killed in battle”.
Whether his fears were truly exorcised, we shall never know, but the work itself stands as a fitting testament to all those who gave their lives in conflict.
The Bliss exhibition in the Anderson Room at the University Library runs from 3 August – 3 September 2016. Enquiries regarding material in the Bliss Archive may be made via email@example.com.