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1. Relating / L’Écosse en relation

Relating Ø/to/in the desert: Scottish World War II Poets in North Africa and the Middle-East

Stéphanie NOIRARD


Le terme “relating”, qui signifie raconter ou créer des relations, se prête particulièrement bien à la définition de la littérature de guerre, celle-ci tenant à la fois du témoignage et de l’esthétique. Lors de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, les poètes écossais ont été envoyés en Afrique du Nord et leur expérience du front, en Egypte, en Libye ou en Tunisie, dont ils témoignent dans leurs poèmes, leurs lettres et leurs journaux, offre un saisissant contraste avec ce que l’on croit connaître ou ce que l’on imagine de la géographie et de l’histoire. Cet article se propose d’étudier comment les poèmes de guerre écossais s’inscrivent dans un contre-discours artistique et historique. Grâce à un panorama historique et culturel, la première partie s’attache à contextualiser la vie et les relations littéraires de l’époque au Caire, tout en rappelant les principaux repères littéraires que les poètes auraient pu convoquer dans le désert. La seconde partie interroge la façon dont les poètes se sont détachés de ces repères pour mieux exprimer leur expérience du désert. Le poème est alors vu comme une silencieuse chambre noire. La troisième partie explore des paysages humains et revient sur les relations au sein de la 8ème Armée ainsi que sur les liens d’affinité entre les poètes écossais et les soldats allemands ou les civils d’Afrique du Nord.

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1“I fling awa my dowp of cigarette / whaur bairns hae biggit castles out of sand / and watch the reik rise frae the parapet. // Suddenlike I am back in Libya / An yon’s the escarpment” (Goldie and Watson 106). This is how Robert Garioch evokes a flash of remembrance typical of posttraumatic stress disorder in “During a Music Festival”, published in 1954. While sand, fire and smoke appear as evident reminders and topoi of what may be imagined as the Desert War, the reference to sandcastles, namely to seaside tourism, can rather be interpreted as an “artialisation” of the desert landscape—now culturally described in terms of sandy dunes. The reference, however, is immediately undermined by the term “escarpment” which, dissonantly rhyming as it does with sand, gives the landscape and its wording a rougher, less appealing appearance. As for the “parapet”, it is much more reminiscent of the trenches of the First World War than of the tank warfare commonly associated with the North African front of the years 1940 to 1943. Addressing desert landscapes in Second World War Scottish poetry would seem to imply some questioning of different ways of relating the world and relating to the world which are as much aesthetic as historical. As the war broke out in the midst of the Scottish Renaissance and involved the most prominent poets of the time, writing in either English, Gaelic or Scots, questions of relationship, be they purely literary or, more broadly, related to nationalist claims, can also be put to the fore. Were North African landscapes more than a strain on the soldiers’ bodies and morale or did they, in their actual or imagined forms, contribute to the intellectual and artistic representations of the poets? A short survey of literary relationships that led to the publication of the Oasis collections by the Salamander Press, and of the poets’ literary and cultural influences will lead to the analysis of their desert landscapes as a debunking of several myths. As poets experience the desert as soldiers, they reinvest and reconfigure it, undermining romantic and orientalist descriptions while denying the most common vision of the North African war as a chivalric war without hate. As a result, relationship within the 8th army, a truly multinational and multisocial group, as well as the way the soldiers felt towards the enemy and the civilians, are redefined.

1. Prolegomena: Literary relations, relating to the literary in World War Two Egypt1

1.1 Egypt and Cairo in the war

2While Egypt had been somewhat independent for more than fifteen years and remained neutral when the Second World War broke out, it more or less co-operated with the United Kingdom in the war effort, and was still under British ascendency, not only in military and political terms but also socially and culturally speaking. France was not far behind either with its numerous catholic missionary schools, the development of museums and its influence on domestic style such as crockery or furniture design. Sudan and the Suez Canal – a link between East and West and a shorter, more convenient route to India – were strategic places Britain intended to keep a firm hand on, and the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, though giving Egypt greater independence and a better place in world politics, had confirmed Britain in its military and administrative rights over these key zones. They became even more strategic once the war broke out and Britain had to secure safe and easy access to Middle Eastern oil while getting ready to face Italian armies in Libya and Ethiopia as they entered the war. The Arab government and the social elite had long been Europeanized and the gap that separated the foreigners and the English or French speaking upper-classes who lived in Alexandria, in the new town of Cairo near the Nile or on Gezira Island, and the poorer Arab-speaking classes who inhabited the old town, was unbridgeable (Bowen 2). Despite Young Egypt and some anti-British movements, British culture thrived in the universities, theatres and other public places of Cairo, a cosmopolitan city where professors, teachers and government operatives had regularly been posted before the war, or where they ended up after 1939, as refugees from lost countries – especially Greece – as lecturers for the military, members of the intelligence or simple soldiers. At one point, Cairo boasted a bustle of literary figures including Lawrence Durrell, Olivia Manning, Terence Tiller, Robin Fedden, Keith Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, along with the flower of Scottish Poetry—Robert Garioch, Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson, Edwin Morgan or G.S. Fraser, to name but a few. As simple civilians, foreign office workers, civil servants, commanding officers, or combatants on leave, they met in the cafés and restaurants of Cairo, in private houses or in Institutes such as the Anglo-British Union, a club founded by the British Council for the entertainment of their staff, but also university and school teachers, officers, and a chosen few among the Egyptians (Bowen 13). There, they discussed, wrote or collected poems, edited and published magazines. Poets related and argued, literary groups formed, broke up or changed members in a city which, though it has often been described as London’s Eastern mirror, was in fact a kind of limbo, an “unreal” place (Bowen 3). Not only did fear of and fascination for the Orient impinge on the imagination of the authors, but the latter also had to evolve in an uncanny world, half European, half Islamic in terms of architecture, culture, or way of life. Moreover, war was both always present and still on the margins – even Rommel’s surprising advance stopped at Sollum in spring 1941. Despite a few Italian air raids, Cairo – unlike Alexandria – never underwent bombing similar to the London blitz; food and wine never were in shortage; concerts, plays, cocktail parties or tours to the pyramids were organized for soldiers on leave or for diplomats; not to mention brothel visits or drinking in bars. All in an overall carefree atmosphere.

1.2 Literary relationships in Cairo

3From 1942, a series of journals and magazines flourished in the Egyptian capital, each addressing particular audiences yet often publishing the same authors – though some sometimes used pseudonyms. While Orientations was published by British Military Headquarters and mostly dealt with soldiers’ accounts and history articles, Citadel was published by the British Institute and aimed at a literary audience. As for Esfam Magazine, it provided students and staff from the English Department of Fuad I University a space to express their thoughts and contribute personal prose or poetic creations. Two groups, moreover, stood out in open rivalry—the Personal Landscapers and the Salamander group. The former included mainly Robin Fedden, Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer, Terence Tiller, Keith Douglas, Olivia Manning, Elie Papadimitriou and G.S. Fraser; the latter, Keith Bullen, John Galsworth, John Cramer, John Waller, Erik De Mauny, Hamish Henderson. They each published magazines during war time with the Salamander poets also gathering and selecting poems contributed by soldiers in the Western Desert to publish an anthology called Oasis, rather in the vein of what was done during the First World War. Unlike the Personal Landscapers, some of the main editors or contributors reunited in the 1980s to form the Salamander Oasis Trust and publish further war anthologies. The authors and editors of Personal Landscapes separated after the war. They refused to be considered as a poetic school yet they formed a rather closed circle, mostly composed of civilian exiled artists – refugee authors from Greece, or of headquarters officers who never went to the front. They united in refusing, rejecting, and even pouring scorn on the war effort, as much in art as in life. As a result disputes ensued between the two groups, Personal Landscapers going as far as to mock the Salamandrines for “publish[ing] the guff which [they] refuse[d]” (Bowen 31). What editors and authors were interested in and wanted to write was rather connected with “personal” points of view and lives, exile in particular, in a disorienting—or perhaps also dis-Orient-ing—world. Although individual Cairo authors have been the object of many critical studies, their group working and publishing as either war poets or poets writing in war circumstances has been greatly overlooked by academics, the few available studies revealing that opposing and relating between the Personal Landscapers and the Salamander Group were not as clear-cut as it seems. While Durrell, Fedden and their fellow contributors criticized those who contributed to the war effort, their texts look with a certain nostalgia at the British Empire and its glory, and the Scottish or Commonwealth soldiers who were published in Oasis probably had a far more satirical eye on the empire. Censorship and the wish to encourage troop morale may well have dictated publication choices to the Salamander editors, notably when they had to select only 70 poems from the thousands they received, but this is partly made up for by the later publications, Return to Oasis; From Oasis to Africa and Italy, 1940-1946; Poems of the Second World War; and The Voice of War, World War Two; which include poems that are at the same time more modernist in their style, more critical or jocular in their contents as well as – and this serves our purpose here – a greater number of Scottish poets, including Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch, Norman Cameron, George Campbell Hay, Colin McIntyre. Finally, some poets came to be published in both magazines, such as Keith Douglas or Terence Tiller – although he probably regretted it (Bowen 34). G.S. Fraser left the Personal Landscapers to join the Salamander Society and even became the editor of Orientations, while Lawrence Durrell wrote the introduction to Return to Oasis in 1980. More than giving an overview of the way poets related intellectually during the period, the magazines, and more particularly the later volumes of Oasis, create connections, games of mirror effects and differences, between privates, officers and civilians; already famous poets, rising talents and simple soldiers who tried their hands at writing; as well as British and Commonwealth points of view. It may be read as a testimony of military and civilian life during the Desert War as well as potent evidence that, as G.S. Fraser argued:

The Middle East in World War Two produced far more—and at times even finer—poetry than all the years of attrition on the Western Front in World War One. The poetry came from a more literate and aware generation. They had read more, and employed a wider range of styles and techniques. (Return to Oasis XIX)

4The very title of the publication, Oasis, however, raises many questions and the need for a reappraisal. Was poetry really a fresh, breathing parenthesis in the fire of the fighting or did it reflect tensions and separations? Does the word oasis express some cultural bias towards desert landscapes which poetry paradoxically contradicts? Before discussing these questions, a survey of literary influence on the poets is necessary.

1.3 A survey of cultural landmarks

  • 2 Some of their poems are published in The Desert Poets of World War One by Jill Hamilton.

5While the Western Desert was no longer a place of discovery but a place of technical strategy, it is safe to argue that the poets were more likely to know less about army strategies than about traditional cultural images of the desert which they had gathered from Presbyterian or Catholic sermons; from books read at school or for the pleasure of it – by Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Browning or Yeats; or even from desolate Scottish landscapes. The Biblical tradition offers Manichean visions of a land of punishment, wandering, wilderness, temptation, horrid noises, or trials, as well as a land of refuge and prophecies where, through asceticism and self-reflection, one can reach wisdom, and where miracles are performed as God proves his love of Man. Quoting from hermits’ letters, Nathalie Roman lists the mountain, the cave, the palm-tree and the spring as the renewed and enchanted description of the desert given by 4th and 5th century Christians in Egypt or Syria. The place is, however, still haunted by demons. She points out that during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance saints and deserts were not dissociated, and the desert took the form of a cave, stones and fantastic beasts, being not simply artialised but becoming an allegory of holiness or expiation. The Desert became an actual artistic landscape as colonization and interest for the Orient grew in Europe and as the sublime came to replace the beautiful in aesthetics. Vastness and wildness, bleakness and darkness, thirst and hunger, wonder and awe, sand and stone, light and heat, silence, the simoon, waste, wild animals, Bedouins, but also prophecy and wisdom, feminine perfume and sensuality, or magic were among the ubiquitous elements Scottish poets could relate to, yet had to reassess, once they were posted in the desert, as they related their experience in the Libyan desert or Egypt. These were still Biblical yet mostly orientalist visions inspired by the translation of the Arabian Nights in the 18th century and later, memoirs or letters relating travel by Savary, Doughty or Burton, to quote but a few influential explorers. Interestingly enough, the blurred perception of a moving frontier – the Libyan desert being most often associated with the Middle-East, and rarely with North Africa – tends to confirm that orientalism, or at least an orientalist viewpoint which allows for imaginary restructuring of geographical entities, was still pregnant in their minds. From the First World War poets who wrote from Gallipoli, the Sanai-Palestine theatre or Mesopotamia, they probably knew nothing. Great War poetry is mainly Eurocentric indeed and Siegfried Sassoon’s or Rupert Brooke’s Middle East lines were and still are very little known2. From Thomas Edward Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), they might have learned and retained some inexorable fascination and attraction for the desert, though again it is much more likely that they knew more about Eliot’s Waste Land – also published in 1922 – and its description of the post-war world as a desert of rock and sand without water. Surrealist paintings, notably by Paul Nash, offered rumbles of objects or debris in somehow nostalgic landscapes which, if not actual desert visions, fed the aesthetic imaginations of future World War Two poets, as Hamish Henderson remarked (quoted in Gibson 151). Finally, with its reflections on religion and human nature and language, on a mineral fresco of multicoloured stones, Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach” (1934) offered both a synthesis and a new representation of desertscapes. As Jean-Marie Fournier argues, the raised beach “n'évoque rien qu'elle-même, et c'est quand le poète se laisse envahir par la solitude du lieu et se met à son écoute, que sa pensée s'élève au-delà d'elle-même” (Fournier 150). In other words, while the religious topoi of solitude and inspiration can still be traced, the representation of minerality is no longer symbolic but autotelic. Its hyper-realistic description makes it evident that the poet was inspired by the Shetland island of Whalsay, and the influence of such barren landscapes on Scottish poets should not be neglected when it comes to exploring their reinvesting of the Western Desert. It would not be unreasonable to infer that their eyes were already accustomed to the mineral, whether primary stony landscapes and eroded coastlines or lands grazed bare by sheep, which allowed them to better relate to, and to relate what they discovered in Libya. By contrast, rich forest lands and lush Nature in Argyll, for instance, or the isle of Mull, rivers, lochs and mountains provided sharp differences with wide, unbroken ergs or regs and demanded physical as well as intellectual adaptation. All the more so as the poets, unlike earlier adventurers or artists, did not choose to go to the desert and its landscape, in the precise circumstances of war moreover, was therefore imposed upon them, an element which partly accounts for some urgent need of reconfiguration.

2. Relating and re-inhabiting the desert: a counter-discourse?

2.1 A land of awe and no beauty

6As an unknown, alienating war ground, the desert is sometimes simply denied by Scottish poets who indeed turn poetry into an oasis of thoughts, a place where they can find respite or comfort in dreams of home. This is particularly evident in G.S. Fraser’s letter-to-his-sister poems where – as is typical of the personal landscapers – he depicts his happy childhood in Aberdeen and broods in solemn anapestic lines on his present exile in Egypt:

When I suddenly woke with a lost lonesome head on my [pillow,
And black Africa turning beneath me towards her own dawn,
And my heart was so sore that this dream should be snapped [at the prologue
That I send you my soreness, dear heart, for the sake of this [dream. (Goldie and Watson 99)

7Most often, however, poets choose to relate their desert life and inscribe it in a counter romantic discourse illustrated in Hamish Henderson’s exclamation: “To the sodding desert — you know what you can do with yourself” (Poems from World War Two 90). Soldiers’ diaries, from Fitzroy McLean to Robert Garioch, and history books all give similar descriptions of desert life, which is summed up in Edwin Morgan’s “North Africa” in a few strokes:

They learned [...]
the meaning of heat, [...]
tents behind the khamsin-blasted dannert.
We watched MacLean at the Ruweisat Ridge
giving a piercing look as he passed by
the fly-buzzed grey-faced dead; [...]
Morgan ate sand, slept sand at El Ballah.” (Morgan 446)

8Not only does the emphasis on “learning the meaning of” highlight disillusionment, as pristine solitude, sublime visions and romance danger turn into sand-sifting, fly-buzzing fields of massacre, but the attempt to move from a neutral “they” to a more personal “we” resulting in the disembodiment of the poet, talking about himself as “Morgan”, contribute to the description of the place as dehumanized as well as dehumanizing. Similar hesitation between “we” and “they” can be found in Robert Garioch’s “Property” which focuses more on scenery and whose ironic allusions to Eliot’s “Wasteland” and MacDiarmid’s “Raised Beach” appear as a “bash on the nose” of the modernists who never visited the desert and used its landscape as symbolic:

He walked with other scorched men
in the dryness of this littoral waste land,
a raised beach without even sea water
with a much damned escarpment
unchanged throughout a day's truck-bumping
or a lifetime of walking without water,
confirming our worst fears of eternity. (Goldie and Watson·102)

9The description is not, however, devoid of cultural and symbolic references. Heat, thirst and dryness are, it is true, given more poignancy than with simple use of lexical field and repetition. Not only is the expression “without water” made conspicuous since it is inserted as a rhyming phrase with a first sentence stress, but it is also disseminated throughout the text as a kind of palimpsestic leitmotiv. It may almost be retraced in “walked with other”. It appears as visual illusions in the accumulation of words starting with w and containing similar letters (waste, worst, walk) and as “with” is always followed by “out” later in the sentence. The depiction of a land of wandering and suffering is, nonetheless, reminiscent of the Hebrews’ forty-year punishment in the wilderness, while suffering eternal thirst echoes the torment of Tantalus. The references are, however, parodied into a modernized reconfiguration as wandering is partly done on a truck, as eternity is overtly laughed at and as Mont Sinai becomes “a much damned escarpment”, endlessly repeated as the journey goes on. Divinity and symbolism are thus denied and the autotelic nature of the desert is reaffirmed, perhaps to an extreme, since it almost becomes tautological. As such, Garioch’s intuition of a repetitive landscape has something common with Guillaumet’s The Sahara whose horizontal lines provide an idea of endless similarity. Immensity and immeasurability, however, are debunked by the poet’s description of strewn possessions discarded by weary soldiers as they go, which are like punctuation marks, end-stopped for the eye, in the landscape: “The greatcoat first, then blanket discarded / and the other property lay absurd on the Desert”. Hamish Henderson, too, punctuates his desert landscape with “thousands of assorted vehicles, in every stage of decomposition” and “thousands of crosses of every shape and pattern, / alone or in little huddles” (op.cit.). These elements break up Guillaumet’s continuous flatness, as do Henderson’s own and Garioch’s more vertical peaks.

  • 3 Location is given instead of page since this is a Kindle edition.

10“Escarpment” is indeed often preferred to “dunes” by Scottish desert poets, sometimes described as “razor-shaped”, which both accounts for a realistic description of the Northern parts of Libya, where most of the fighting took place, and a break away from commonplace sandy undulations. In that sense, Garioch’s desertscape may also be related to Fromentin’s Le Pays de la soif in what Eamonn Gearon calls its “unrelentingly grim aspects of death and dying in the desert” (Gearon 36763). The poem, however, leaves aside the still epic mode of the painting, only keeping its documentary style. Fromentin’s dying characters, narratively placed in a half circle in the neat white folds of their clothes, are replaced by “scorched”, “skidding”, laboring walkers. Arranged rocks are replaced by human properties, haphazardly discarded. The pyramidal structure of the painting is no longer present, in a rejection of orientalism. But angles, as opposed to circles, are to be found in syntactic disruptions, be they implemented by enjambments, parenthetic comments or parataxis, both exemplified in these lines: “Later, in Libya (sand & scrub, / the sun two weeks to midsummer) / he carried all his property over the sand”, with “&” further breaking away from narrativity. The only circles, whirlwinds of sand shifted by the Khamsin, eventually deny gentle waves and undulations in their violence:

A hot dry wind rose, moving the sand,
the sand-shifting Khamsin, rustling over
the land, whistling through hardy sandy
scrub, where sand-snails' brittle
shells on the sand, things in themselves,
roll for ever. Suffusing the sand in the
air, the sun burned in darkness.
No man now whistled, only the sandy wind.

11Antanaclasis, repetition and paronomasia create some plasticity which allows the sand to shift through the lines and cover the landscape. This endless, rolling movement is reinforced by run-on lines which, on the one hand, drive the sentences forward while violently impinging on meaning. Movement is absent from Fromentin’s painting, though it is made up for by light, depth and open horizons, of which Michel Collot might argue that it is sufficiently marked to create a limit beyond which the mind may go and sufficiently open for it to do so. As the sky turns leaden in Garioch’s text the traditional openness of the desert is reduced to movements in chiaroscuro and a much shorter focus. While the visible is upset and disrupted, allowing for some creative images, the final word of the description, “darkness”, and the negative sentence which follows, with its dehumanization and syntactic rupture, offers some contradiction to Michel Collot’s idea according to which the wind opens up horizons (Collot 210).

2.2 Restructuring the horizon: the poem as a camera obscura

12Shallower fields and narrower scopes are common to many Scottish Desert War poems which offer zoom-in perspectives on characters, objects or life incidents, and fragmented landscapes, as though seen through binoculars, sights or a periscope; watched from a truck or some blocked out perspective; only glanced at in the course of action; or perceived by soldiers affected with hyperesthesia. In Sorley MacLean’s “Death Valley”, the desert appears first as a “studium”, as it is first evoked by a simple geographical name, and then reduced to a patch of sand strewn with dead men: “[…] [h]e was the most piteous to see // alley gone to seed / with flies about grey corpses / on a dun sand / dirty yellow and full of the rubbish / and fragments of battle” (Return to Oasis 115). The colour correction, the use of “battle” as hypernym encapsulating vehicles, ammunition and perhaps body parts, as well as the undetermined “rubbish and fragments” and the absence of punctuation imply that the scene is only looked at in passing, whereas the particular focus on the flies and, earlier in the poem, the full description of a young dead German, emphasize visual and psychological trauma. They are indeed “punctum”—and Roland Barthes points to the etymology of the word as cut, wound—that attract attention, and scar memory (Barthes 48–49). No wonder Morgan defined it as a “piercing look”. In Hamish Henderson’s “Alamein, October 23, 1942”, landscape is seen by a cloudy night, both from a moving armoured vehicle: “On this moon surface / of cracks, craters and depressions / the ant-hill stirs. The spring is compressed for the blow. / As we jib and jolt / in a shiver-shaken Dodge down the Springbok / road, the clouds muffle / the vast mobility”; and from the actual or imagined point of view of some sentry standing outside: “the clouds cloak / the continuous whirr and clatter of our / advancing armour, mustering for the thrust” (From Oasis to Africa and Italy 38). Vision being partly or totally impaired, realistic descriptions are replaced, in the first quotation, by more fantastic and moving shapes that cannot really be decoded. Should ant-hills, for instance, be understood as a metaphor evoking, perhaps in the same way as “Springbok road” does, the earthquake impression passengers feel on the bumpy trail, or as termite mounds, dissolving dunes or blown-up tanks? Or could it just be a code word? In both quotations, synaesthesis allows visual representations to be induced by other senses, with jolting and jibbing, whirl and clatter as well as a cacophony of plosives, being reminiscent of craters and depressions.

13Even if horizons are represented at all, they no longer call for adventure and dream but are either felt as frightening neverendedness or actual battlefield mirrors. This is blatant in George Campbell Hay’s “Bizerta” in which he describes the blaze of the burning city on the horizon:

Now red like a battlefield puddle,
now pale like the drained whiteness of foul fear,
climbing and sinking,
reaching and darting up and shrinking in size,
growing faint for a moment
and swelling like the breath of a devil in intensity,
I see Evil as a pulse and a heart
declining and leaping in throbs.
The blaze, a horror on the skyline,
a ring of rose and gold at the foot of the sky,
belies and denies
with its light the ancient high tranquillity of the stars.
Uair dearg mar lod na h-àraich,
uair bàn mar ghile thràighte an eagail èitigh,
a' dìreadh 's uair a' teàrnadh,
a' sìneadh le sitheadh àrd 's a' call a mheudachd,
a' fannachadh car aitil
's ag at mar anail dhiabhail air dhèinead,
an t-Olc 'na chridhe 's 'na chuisle,
chì mi 'na bhuillean a' sìoladh 's a' leum e.
Tho 'n dreòs 'na oillt air fàire,
'na fhàinne ròis is òir am bun nan speuran,
a' breugnachadh 's ag àicheadh
le 'shoillse sèimhe àrsaidh àrd nan reultan. (Campbell Hay 177)

14Not only does the fire prevent horizontal eye-movement, but it also competes with stars and disturbs any possible looking up. Blazing, then declining light, rose and gold further create illusions as the incendiary imitates dawn, daylight and dusk in turn, so that time as well as space are no longer recognized. Perspectives are hence distorted indeed, though not to create openness and depth but a confining and claustrophobic atmosphere as the mirror reproduces the battle-field and cannot inspire anything else but further death and violence:

What is their name tonight,
the poor streets where every window spews
its flame and smoke,
its sparks and the screaming of its inmates,
while house upon house is rent
and collapses in a gust of smoke?

15Although the English translation is as assonantal and alliterative as it can possibly be, it is much less telling than the Gaelic original. Alternance of short and longer lines, exact count of syllables, aicill, end-rhymes, as well as word movements implied by declension or paronomasia, illustrate reflection, distortion, and infernal circularity. A perimeter which is also reproduced by the poem’s structure since the first and last stanzas describe the burning skyline, while Bizerta collapses in stanzas two and three, with the city being itself at once an inclosing trap of streets and houses for its inhabitants, and an entrapped vision in the brooding mind of the persona. Almost as an intuition of the A-bomb, the city is pictured as imploding, a centripetal movement ultimately contradicting the open width of the desert and qualifying Michel Collot’s argument according to which “précisément parce qu’il ne donne rien à voir, l’horizon suscite les mirages de l’imaginaire” (Collot, 188). As a mirror to the war zone, the horizon prevents any possible form of escape, be it physical or psychological. It closes in on the soldier to reveal trauma.

2.3 Sounds and silence in the desert

16The only desert topos which Campbell Hay holds on to is silence. Though, again, as in many Scottish desert poems, it can no longer be compared to the sacred or holy silence of hermits who retreated to the desert to be alone with themselves and God. Daniel Chartier’s study of silence in a different kind of desert, namely, Arctic winter landscapes, can extensively be applied and adapted to the Western or Libyan desert in times of war. While in Egypt and Libya, heat and sand play the parts of cold and snow, in both cases, silence is connected with “monochromatism, immensity, horizontality and lack of bearings”. In Campbell Hay’s poem, silence is equated to violence. It is a silence that drives one mad:

You would think that there would be heard
from its midst, though far away, wailing and lamentation,
the roar of rage and the yell of hate,
but yonder it spreads
along the rim of the sky in evil ghastly silence.

17Lack of noise denies horrid yet at least culturally apprehensible facts, alluded to in the Biblical reference to “wailing and lamentation”. Meanwhile dissociation between vision and auditive elements creates an uncanny atmosphere which disturbs the mind as it offers no possible bearing, and in the same way as burning horizons did, leads not to imagination but to traumatic memories and more silence—the representation of the unspeakable: “What is their name tonight / [...] / And who tonight […]”. Sounds, however, are far from being comforting or reassuring either. The original silence of the desert may be said to “amplify, multiply and dramatize the slightest noise”, Morgan’s oxymoronic description of the “faint terrible sound” made by a dead officer as he rolls in the canvas of the stretcher (Morgan 330) is proof enough. Noises, on the other hand, particularly mechanical or human noises “desacralize” the desert and are felt as “dangers and threats”. Sorley MacLean’s “Autumn Day” is “Bizerta”’s matching piece in terms of sound. The poem may give an impression of being structured like a pyramid, thematically speaking, as it moves from dead men to flying shells to a momentous explosion, then back to flying shells and the dead men. Like its counterpart, however, it rather implies circularity since the relating of the explosion is actually a flashback. The unspeakable is, this time, replaced by the invisible owing to synaesthesis: “[w]hen the screech came / out of the sun, / out of an invisible throbbing” (Poems of the Second World War 105). The noise is dramatized into a moving shape and is made so blatant it becomes visual and palpable. To such a point that only annihilation may result: “blinding of eyes, splitting of hearing. // And after it, the six men dead”. Annihilation is emphasized by dehumanization as the shells which keep hailing past the dead soldiers are ironically described as “snoring” as opposed to “soughing” earlier in the text. One way or another, their constant noise becomes a substitute for what Daniel Chartier describes as the arctic desert’s “ecological noise”, that is to say the “infinite whispering of tiny things” like water or wind.

18Even singing sand and wind lose their magic in war time Desert and Robert Garioch’s “Property” illustrates the way their “rustling” and “whistling” becomes a kind of white noise, not just psychological but also physical torture. The poem relates to MacLean’s “Autumn Day” in its final dehumanization, as soldiers “skid” in their pace as well as in their whistling rhythm, then become mute while the wind remains the only whistler. Like the cold in the North, heat parches the lips, dust flares in the mouth and into the lungs, preventing men from speaking or muffling their voices, then forbidding utterance. Norman Cameron expresses the physical feeling of dry muteness well in the first stanza of “Green, Green is El Aghir”:

Sprawled on the crates and sacks in the rear of the truck,
I was gummy-mouthed from the sun and the dust of the track,
And the two Arab soldiers I'd taken on as hitch-hikers
At a torrid petrol-dump, had been there on their hunkers
Since early morning.
I said, in a kind of French
'On m'a dit, qu'il y a une belle source d'eau fraîche,
Plus loin, à El Aghir'... (Poems of the Second World War 61)

19Although voice and language seem to be full-throated in the stanza, despite the persona’s “gummy mouth”, they are in fact very much distorted. The first sentences can be described as anacoluthons, while slant rhymes lead to a faltering tune, all the more so as, in these prosaic lines, they somehow mock Wilfred Owen’s style, especially when “French” is awkwardly made to rhyme with “fraiche”. Thus being forced into English phonetics and rhythm—“On m’a dit qu’il y a un’ bell’ source d’eau fraiche” [my emphasis] being a perfect anapestic tetrameter—French fails to struggle against silence and provide meaningful hybridity. Auto-quotation in a foreign language between speech marks also contributes to the faltering of the voice. The persona returns to English and free direct speech – in the grammatical as well as the thematic sense of the term – in the oasis of El-Aghir. Other and perhaps more successful attempts at turning interdiction into inter-diction can be found in George Campbell Hay’s use of medieval Italian rhymes and of several languages in his Gaelic poems, or in Hamish Henderson’s collection and translation of Italian folk songs as he interrogated prisoners of war. This was a way for them to recreate human bonds and new relationships in a war they perceived differently from their English fellow soldiers.

3. “For I knew the others4”: questioning relationship in times of war

3.1 Racism in the British army

  • 5 See La Guerre du Désert, 1940-1943, by Nicola Labanca et al. for a reassessment of Desert War myths

20Desert war myths die hard, partly because the conflict was mainly related by the main commanding officers in their diaries and also because the zone was considered of lesser importance than mainland Europe, for instance, involving fewer soldiers and civilians. Owing to Rommel, and later British propaganda, it is mostly imagined as an epic war of hero tank officers in a desolate land empty of people, where nothing counted but strategy and chivalric values5. Mutual friendship and alliances were said to be the rule, especially within the 8th Army, though the 51st Highland division had a reputation for undisciplined arrogance. These romantic visions are slowly being reassessed nowadays, but already at that time, Scottish poetry diverged from propagandist points of view. Not only does it highlight the difficult relationship between and the unequal treatment of the 8th Army’s soldiers, but it also offers a different vision of axis soldiers and of civilians while providing more personal accounts of friendship or love. James Gillespie’s “Gillespie’s leave” (Goldie and Watson 11–12) is a darkly humorous poem which not only debunks the myth of hero tank crews but reflects racism within the British army. It relates the experience of a lance corporal in the British Indian army, armed with a mop and a washing tank, who is constantly refused leave, implicitly because the British come first. As the corporal is examined for the required Free from Infection pass, racism goes one step further when the medical officer gives him “a curious glance”. This might be an allusion to the common idea that coloured soldiers had huge sexual appetites, and to the astonishment a British officer feels when finding that, naked, an Indian soldier looks like himself, like a man. For the corporal is dehumanized indeed throughout the poem. He is never given a name but always called by his grade, Lance Naik, which is all the more derogatory as it sounds like “land snake”. As the soldier eventually refers to himself as “Lance Naik, me”, in a parody of presentation in pidgin, loss of identity is then complete.

21There was racism too within the United Kingdom. In “Going Westwards” (Goldie and Watson 134-137), Sorley MacLean expresses his resentment at English scorn towards the Gaels: “I go westwards in the Desert / with my shame on my shoulders, / that I was made a laughing-stock / since I was as my people were.” Scorn is heavier to carry than weapons and armour, furthermore the passive voice and the possible cognition between “laughing-stock” and “livestock” illustrate how man is turned into an object. As a result, the soldier feels doubts about his enrollment in the British Army. Loss and guilt are expressed in the paradoxical title. “Going west” contradicts fighting in the East, as opposed to going home to the Western Isles, while, at the same time, implying going to fight in the Western Desert. The soldier finds it hard to reconcile his struggle against Nazism with actually fighting German people: “and though I do not hate Rommel's army, / the brain's eye is not squinting.” These lines are reminiscent of Yeats’s “[those] that I fight I do not hate / those that I guard I do not love”, yet there is no “impulse of delight” in MacLean’s poem, but shame, guilt and some feeling of uselessness: “I am of the big men of Braes, / of the heroic Raasay MacLeods, / of the sharp-sword Mathesons of Lochalsh; / and the men of my name – who were braver / when their ruinous pride was kindled?” Though Sorley MacLean was not a conscientious objector, unlike Norman McCaig, Douglas Young, Ruthven Todd or George Bruce, his opinion on war and the British empire has remained famous:

My fear and hatred of the Nazis [is] even more than my hatred of the English Empire. My only hope is that the British and German Empires will exhaust each other and leave the Soviet the dominating influence on the oppressed people of all Europe including Britain and Germany.... The only real war is the class war and I see my own little part merely as one that contributes to the mutual exhaustion of the British and German Empires. (quoted in Watson 326)

22Such communist and socialist considerations which envisage individual men as opposed to empires and armies, question war as a “human civil war”, and represent death as “levelling”, is common at least to Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson and George Campbell Hay. Their poems have been too extensively studied from this point of view, notably by Roderick Watson, Corey Gibson or Angus Colder, for a repeat here, but there remains some doubt as to the desert being the real or actual reason for their diverging opinion on war. Henderson’s preface to Elegies for those who Died in Cyrenaica is famous for arguing so:

It was the remark of a captured German officer which first suggested to me the theme of these poems. He said ‘Africa changes everything. In reality we are allies, and the desert is our common enemy.’
The troops confronting each other in Libya were relatively small in numbers. In the early stages of the desert war they were to a large extent forced to live off each other. Motor transport, equipment of all kinds and even armoured fighting vehicles changed hands frequently. The result was a curious ‘doppelganger’ effect, and it is this, enhanced by the deceptive distances and uncertain directions of the North African wasteland, which I have tried to capture in some of the poems. (quoted in Watson 324)

  • 6 Published under the title “Elegy for an 88 Gunner”.

23While there is no denying that the circumstances Henderson describes are historically accurate and actually led to some uncanny relating between enemy soldiers, one should be careful not to propagate Rommel’s definition of the Desert War as “a war of peace”, of Allied and Axis Forces fighting together against barbarity and the wilderness. Among English poets, only Keith Douglas in “Vergissmeinnicht” (Return to Oasis 846) manages to reach the intensity of the representation of a dead German soldier which can be found in MacLean’s “Death Valley” or Henderson’s elegies. Yet the poem is not devoid of contempt for the dead enemy, and Roger Bowen argues that focus is rather put on “the view taken on [the] fact” that the German killer was also a lover, and that it explores the “condition of death [and] of its implication for the meaning of love” (Bowen 59). In other words, Keith Douglas’s poem is more conceptual and metaphysical whereas the Scottish poets offer visions that are more man-centered. It is, as a consequence, not unreasonable to argue that it is their particular history within the United Kingdom, if not the British empire, as well as the earlier Scottish Renaissance and Nationalist movements, which led Scots and Gaelic poets to be more attentive to man and his individual fate in “the foreign sand of History”. An argument which plays in favor of this intuition is that, in the Oasis anthologies, the poems which express some sympathy for the enemy are mostly written by poets from the Commonwealth, although, of course, further study ought to be devoted to the question.

3.2 Relating with North African people

  • 7 For a definition of this term, notably thought to mean “Wily Oriental Gentleman” and more on Britis (...)

24Scottish authors did not just consider the fate of soldiers. They also reflected on the lives of the civilians, thus re-peopling the desert and further pondering on colonization and those left on the wayside. Indigenous people were generally mocked and despised by the British troops. Egyptian King Farouk, for instance, was hugely criticized for his duplicity, either openly in Cairo theatres when the Egyptian anthem was booed and replaced by saucy songs or in essays and poems. Above all, the English poems published in the Oasis collections often give a negative representation of the “wogs”7, describing them as archetypically sly, miserly and concupiscent. This seems rarely the case in Scottish poetry, except in Fraser’s description of Cairo women. George Campbell Hay once wrote:

I cannot imagine a more cosmopolitan place than the seaboard of North Africa... though curiously enough the average English soldier in his ignorance seems to find nothing but crowds of ‘dirty bastards’, who are much inferior to him in every respect, wherever his masters order him to go. (quoted in Gearon 3578)

25He further criticized Europe for seeing in North Africa nothing “but phosphates, cork, cheap labour and what not” (Watson 333). As a conscientious objector early in the war, he could not but feel sympathy for the local population who had, probably like the Scots according to him, to endure colonization, enrollment and a war that was not theirs. Roderick Watson points out that Hay could easily identify with these men “of humble origin, not so different from crofting folk in Scotland” (Ibid.). He must have found links too, between Presbyterian and Islamic ideas of predestination and providence, which a tirailleur’s widow expresses in his poem “Mokhtâr and Dougall”: “As God had marked it out and planned it, / he reached the spot which was the end of his course, / the turf on which both slave and prince must tread” (Campbell Hay 108). The poem is an epic fresco, Ossianic as well as Koranic in pattern, structure, vocabulary and theme, where Arab and Gaelic common people made heroes are mirrored. Some may argue that it is not devoid of clichés and essentialist representations of both cultures, and it is true that desert landscapes, for instance, are truly archetypal. All the more so as “the saffron sea / of the Sahara, vast and grimly glooming” (ibid. 117) echoes a Gaelic sea that “sen[ds] its swell murmuring / against a frowning shore” (ibid. 153), contradicting Hay’s earlier representations. The aim of the poet however is no longer to relate his war experience but to borrow from apparently opposite cultures in order to unite the Tunisian Tirailleur and the Scottish soldier, “‘the lousy Arab’” and the “‘dirty Roumy’” (ibid. 107), and to thus counterbalance the “powerful, tyrannous reconciler / (that) is the goodly civilisation of Europe!” (ibid).

3.3 Personal relationship: the example of Edwin Morgan

  • 8 See Delmas for assessment of Lawrence’s autobiography.

26Edwin Morgan’s “New Divan”, partly inspired by 14th century Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz’s work, similarly offers what David Kinloch called a “bewildering kaleidoscope of oriental images that often dissolve into more familiar western and northern domestic scenes” (Kinloch 86). The poet’s aim, however, is rather to reflect upon his own life and relationships, although he too stands up for those who are rejected by society, as he turns brotherhood into homosexual love. The poem was written more than thirty years after the war, which allows Morgan to reintroduce romantic or orientalist images, notably of sensuousness and sensoriality, in a way which is no longer nostalgic or innocent. They are combined with surrealist images, syntactic ruptures and non-chronological forms in reaction to conventionalism, in art as well as in society. David Kinloch argues that “The war that is present in `The New Divan' is [...] a gay man’s war” (Ibid. 100). And it is true that, form notwithstanding, the poem, in its rehabilitation of gay love and its open criticism of homophobia, is a counter-discourse to the imagined oriental as a pervert and a homosexual and further perhaps to T.E. Lawrence’s homoerotic narrative and invented homosexual rape8. While masquerade and cross-gender dressing were not unusual among British travelers to the Orient from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, Morgan endorses the costume of the soldier although in the medical corps, as an alternative to conscientious objection. The masquerade is thus turned into a military exercise where each desert trope is replaced by a military element:

[...] On guard, I climb the water-tower. [...]
No northern mists envelop me,
there's nothing but the silent metal, the pack of stars from
zenith to horizon blazing down
on mile of mile of undulating sand. Swiftly
the thud of land-mines brings confusion
to the Canal. One star moves, drones. (Morgan 328)

27Enjambments, however, undermine military discipline and, combined as they are with the metaphorical power of language, which allows an airplane to become a star—or the other way around, emphasize writing as a rebellious and farcical art. Above all the masquerade is a poetic performance of coming-out and looking-in, of intertextuality and intersexuality, as manly war destroys the body and the mind (“I don't forget, in the desert, that dead officer / drained of blood, wasted away, / leg amputated at the thigh”), as well as love and physical relationship (“You came under my mosquito-net / many times, till you were posted far off. / I was innocent enough / to think the posting was accidental” (Morgan 229), and as the poet finds poetic resilience: “a shred of sailcloth / relic of a gale / that really blew slews to the resting-place / [...] / I pick it from the stone, / Hafiz, to bind the leaves of my divan.” (Ibid. 330)

  • 9 See Delmas for detailed evolution from “Tabula Rasa” to palimpsest.

28It is therefore a humane as well as a critical look which Scottish combatant poets take upon the desert and its topological and human landscapes throughout the Second World War. The desert, for them, is no longer an empty space to write upon, hardly a palimpsest9, but some disorderly space and time to reconstruct. The last quotation by Morgan demonstrates that, from this literal or as Garioch would have it “littoral” wasteland, they have moved one step further from T.S. Eliot, not “Shor[ing] […] fragments against […] ruins” but “binding the leaves of [their] Divan” with “sailcloth”. Although they might have been fettered by cultural collective memory in their descriptions, they overcame the aesthetic shock they faced when posted in Libya or Egypt and managed to reconfigure, reinhabit and relate the desert in their own ways, deconstructing and hybridizing forms and languages. As such, they literarily mined many a myth, re-peopling the land and creating human as well as intellectual ties. Meanwhile they distanced themselves from official European and colonial thoughts, gave a diverging point of view on the Desert War which historians were late in considering but which “Divan binders”, namely anthologists and publishers, revealed.

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1 For this survey, information was mainly drawn and synthesized from the following sources: Cairo in the War: 1939-1945 by Artemis Cooper, La Guerre du Désert, 1940-1943 by Nicola Labanca et al., and Many Histories Deep, by Roger Bowen for parts one and two; as well as from The Sahara by Eamonn Gearon, Ecritures du desert by Catherine Delmas and Naissance du Désert by Chantal Dagron and Mohamed Kacimi, for part 3.

2 Some of their poems are published in The Desert Poets of World War One by Jill Hamilton.

3 Location is given instead of page since this is a Kindle edition.

4 Borrowed from Henderson’s “First Elegy to Those who Died in Cyrenaica” (Goldie and Watson 120).

5 See La Guerre du Désert, 1940-1943, by Nicola Labanca et al. for a reassessment of Desert War myths.

6 Published under the title “Elegy for an 88 Gunner”.

7 For a definition of this term, notably thought to mean “Wily Oriental Gentleman” and more on British soldiers’ representation of the Egyptians at the time, see Cooper, notably location 1774.

8 See Delmas for assessment of Lawrence’s autobiography.

9 See Delmas for detailed evolution from “Tabula Rasa” to palimpsest.

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Stéphanie NOIRARD, « Relating Ø/to/in the desert: Scottish World War II Poets in North Africa and the Middle-East »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphanie NOIRARD

Université de Poitiers
Stephanie Noirard teaches English literature and translation at the university of Poitiers. Her research focuses mainly on Scottish poetry, with particular interest in the poetry of war and trauma as well as minority cultures and languages.

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