‘Mind the Wire’: David Jones and World War I Telephony
Keywords: World War 1 technology, military communications, British modernist poetry, Great War poetry, David Jones
Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.
The Great War was a telephone war. While the British Army employed and enhanced a catalog of old and new communications technologies, from carrier pigeons to radio (wireless) devices, wired telephones were Britain’s primary means of communication during the war. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, Captain of the 115th Brigade, described the telephone wire as the “life-blood” of Britain’s warfare intelligence. Yet, telephones were also a tenuous communicative medium. As dramatized in the recent Oscar-winning film, 1917, the Western Front was pulsing with telephonic failure. Clumsy feet could dislodge a wire; mortars could destroy an entire network of wires; and, perhaps most devastating, telephone wires could be tapped by enemy intelligence.
David Jones’s Great War epic In Parenthesis bears witness to this communicative tension. Telephone wires carry news and information in the poem, but they also hum with poor connectivity, spread gossip among soldiers, and create physical obstacles in the trenches. Amidst the new Great War Modernisms to rise in recent modernist studies, it is notable how peripheral these sites often are to the war itself. How might new histories of World War I warfare, such as its geographies or communications practices, offer new ways of conceptualizing the emergence—or in Jones’s case, latency—of modernist poetry? This paper examines how Jones’s poetic invention charts and even simulates the communicative landscape of World War I.
In Parenthesis is a book-long experiment of verse and prose based on Jones’s experience with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the Western Front from roughly December 1915 to July 1916. The poem follows Private John Ball—a semi-biographical Jones—and his company’s journey to the front lines. In this paper, I will focus on a scene from section three of the poem, which depicts Ball navigating the winding spaces of the trenches and encountering telephone signallers, who were responsible for operating and maintaining the British Army’s telecommunications network.
Here is the first part of the scene:
Mind the wire, china
—keep yourself low.
Bodies move just at head level, outside the trench; hollow unreal voices, reaching the ear unexpectedly, from behind or round the traverse bend, like the shouting at the immediate door comes on you from a far window:
I’ve found it Bertie, I’ve got ‘D’ and ‘C’.
So what is going on? We first hear telephone signallers call out to Ball and his company to watch out for telephone wire. In his notes to the poem, Jones describes wires of field-telephones as “a frequent impediment in trenches or on roads by night. They ran in the most unexpected fashion and at any height; and, when broken, trailed and caught on any jutty thing, to the great misery of hurrying men.” The signallers’ voices then shift to the poem’s narrator, who we can read in part as John Ball, reflecting on the soundscape of the trench, of soldiers above and “behind” and “round the traverse bend.” Like Proust’s narrator in The Guermantes Way (1920) hearing the ghostly voice of his grandmother, Jones’s narrator strains toward disembodied, “unreal” sounds. His voice is then interrupted by a signaller exclaiming to another signaller called “Bertie” that he has regained connection with “‘D’” and “‘C’” signallers further along the line.
Jones is a demanding writer, especially in the way he interjects voices and shuffles between dialogue and narrative. In this passage, we get a sample of how Jones immerses the reader in the bustle of the trenches, as if caught between (dis)connected lines. David Trotter has argued that telephones in early twentieth-century modernist literature “simply do not work, in the most basic technical sense.” And “even when they do work,” according to Trotter, “they don’t, because their working is itself an estrangement, a disconnection.” (47) Though a decade later than Trotter’s timeline, Jones’s telephony can also be read along these lines. Yet, In Parenthesis leans into its tenuous connectivity in ways that distinguish it from other modernist telephones.
Continuing with the scene from where we left off:
I’ve found it Bertie, I’ve got ‘D’ and ‘C’.
Telephonic buzzing makes the wilderness seem curiously homely; the linesman’s boot implicates someone’s tackle passing.
He continues his song; he beats time with his heels thudding the trench-wall, his trade in his lap:
Kitty Kitty isn’t it a pity
in the City—it’s a bad break, Bertie.
They bend low over, intently whistling low like mechanic’s mate. They secure it with rubber solution; they pick their way, negotiating unseen wire, they remember the lie of the land with accuracy…