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By considering one of the poems that you have read, explain how the poet presents their view of the conflict – ‘Counter-Attack’
Siegfried Sassoon presents his personal experience in the war in ‘Counter- Attack’ with raw brutal imagery of the battlefield, the numerous sensory feelings provoking terror and outrage at the war, coupled with the stark contrast of report-like statements to ultimately convey the futility of the conflict, and the massive waste of life.
Sassoon immediately establishes the sense of emotional detachment in the conflict; the opening lines simply state that they had ‘gained (their) first objective hours before’, provoking horror at the fact that soldiers were forced to fight in inhumane conditions and ultimately were made to detach themselves from the terror of watching their friends being murdered.
A semi-omniscient narration is maintained to establish the collective horror of the war, the fact that all soldiers would almost always face the same fate as the previous had and remains set throughout the poem as the contrast to the emotional detachment presented.
The poet describes how at first even before the attack begins the soldiers are already ‘blind with smoke’, yet they are made to continue to work as soon as ‘dawn’ begins; all the soldiers are immediately forced to join in with the ‘clink of shovels’, a sign of the hard conditions of living in the trenches, while the militaristic onomatopoeia coincides with the perceived orderliness, such as the ‘bombers posted’ and ‘Lewis guns well placed’.
The poet therefore establishes the horror of the almost methodical methods to which the war was fought, and that the death that would come later made to seem almost mechanical.
Sassoon also emphasises that these soldiers are simply normal men, many whom are young and forced to fight when he describes how prior to the counter-attack, there was ‘a yawning soldier [kneeling] across the bank’; in order to keep their morale up, they are forced to become sardonic, sarcastically describing the weather as ‘the jolly old rain’, yet serving to reinforce the message that the conflict has forced people to become detached from their emotions and feelings.
The horror of the battlefield is also clearly defined; Sassoon describes the average life in the trenches even before the counter-attack to be one ‘rotten with dead; green clumsy legs’. The use of ‘rotten’ inherently suggests that the battlefield is full of bodies, many of which are likely to be decomposing which only heightens the horror in which these soldiers must live their daily lives. They are in effect also forced to separate themselves from the sights; death is a normality in warfare, and the raw description of various soldiers ‘sprawled and grovelled’ along the trenches defines the sheer brutality they face.
The men are reduced from strong, able men who were previously ‘high-booted’ to being helpless in the face of war, some even described as eventually dying ‘face downward’, a possible reference to the conflict only bringing doom to their lives. The battlefield is not only strewn with countless bodies, but also described as treacherous itself; the mud is personified as ‘sucking’ the fallen soldiers down into it with little remorse, creating a sense of the indignity of the soldiers’ deaths. The soldiers that are still alive are simply ‘[wallowing] like trodden sand-bags’, indication of the hopelessness and lack of control in the situation they face. They are also metaphorically ‘loosely-filled’, hinting possibly that these men are also physically as well as mentally exhausted, hence the soldier having ‘knelt’ against the bank.
The sudden switch from the collection of soldiers to the single one in the second stanza points towards Sassoon’s idea of the wrongs of war; the stark reality that war costs numerous lives and each soldier is in effect a whole life, the one about to be lost in the war is as just as important. To describe the intensity of the conflict, the poet describes how this single soldier responds with such fear in that he becomes ‘mute in the clamour of shells’, simply reduced as he recoils from the initial shock of warfare.
Yet rather than recovering from his initial shock, ultimately the soldier is described by Sassoon as helpless, as he ‘crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear’, reduced almost to primal instinct when faced with such a large ‘strangled’ horror. The battlefield along with its weaponry ‘[spouts] dark earth and wire with gusts from hell’; the poet explains the terrible nature of the war, likened to hell wrecking its destruction onto the battlefield, and in the remnants of the carnage the soldier can only hear the ‘butchered, frantic gestures of the dead’ – an oxymoron to establish the fact that death on the battlefield is so sudden and brutal it is literally incomprehensible.
Sassoon’s view of the conflict is described as being ultimately futile; the first stanza already indicates that there are numerous ‘bulged, clotted heads’ scattered throughout, grotesque imagery that also provides an ominous undertone to the counter-attack. These bodies are also described as ‘[sleeping]’ rather than the stark reality that they are dead, pointing to the normality of the situation. To add further to the futility, even the officer of the trench is ‘blundering’, somewhat dark comedy in the face of terrible times, and he continues only by ‘gasping and bawling’ in shock. In contrast to the ‘dead’ lifeless nature of the soldiers, it is the ammunition that is fully alive in this case; ‘bullets spat’ at them, ‘traversing sure as fate, and never a dud’, adding to the certainty of death in the conflict.
The soldier Sassoon describes ultimately meets his fate in a spout of confusion indicated by the sudden ellipses in his thoughts: ‘and he remembered his rifle…rapid fire…’ Notably the soldier himself cannot remember to hold onto his own rifle – shock is combined with futility in that the soldier cannot arm himself and is therefore helpless, akin to almost all the other soldiers in the trenches. His fate is one that ends with him having ‘[bled] to death’. Heavy consonants throughout the line along with repetition emphasise the futile nature in which he dies: ‘Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned’.
The poem establishes Sassoon’s opinion of the conflict being one filled with horror, forced emotional detachment and ultimately the underlying futility of the war in the soldiers’ confusion and the mechanical killing presented. The poem never aligns with any set line structure in order to add to this confusion, and the poem is closed with the simple factual statement ‘the counter-attack had failed’, in line with the opening line to create a contrast and show the real brutal nature of war: people become numbers rather than the real human beings presented in the second stanza.
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