Remembrance through literature: Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’

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For most of our school lives, many of us have been reminded of Remembrance Sunday every year – assemblies, poppies being sold at break time, and history lessons in early November that focus on the massive losses experienced in the First and Second World Wars. Since coming to university, however, Remembrance Day has become less prevalent and so books can serve as an important reminder of our history. One such book is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, a heartbreaking fictional account of World War One, exploring the impact of war across generations. The protagonist, Stephen Wraysford is introduced in pre-war France, and the early part of the novel depicts his relationship with the married Isabelle. 

What struck me most about Birdsong was the completely graphic portrayal of trench warfare and the psychological impact it has. Reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poetic exploration of these themes, Faulks launches his readers into the battlefield with no romanticisation or glorification of war. In particular, we are confronted with the sheer scale of loss in the Somme. Prior to reading Birdsong, I had visited the Somme graves in the north of France. From this experience, I recall being struck by the sea of white crosses on the landscape, and the monuments commemorating the battle. The atmosphere there now is incredibly peaceful and somber, a far cry from the descriptions of violence and death in the novel. 

Faulks launches his readers into the battlefield with no romanticisation or glorification of war

Despite Faulks’ undeniable creation of mass death, his focus on individuals serves as a reminder of the individual experiences and stories of the war. One of the most moving is the account of Jack Firebrace, who despite being pummelled with loss at the front, holds on to the ‘innocence’ and ‘purity’ of his son as a form of escapism. This reflects the motivation of many soldiers that centred around love, opposed to the political factors at play in the war effort, which is often what we are taught at school. 

A sharp juxtaposition with this portrayal of violence is the confrontation with love in every form – romantic, parental, and platonic. Firstly, this is expressed in the romance between Isabelle and Stephen. Initially, the reader may be conflicted as Isabelle is married, however, the purity of their love is heartwarming. Additionally, there is the overarching love amongst the soldiers, that arises from shared trauma and experience. This reverberates through generations when Elizabeth (Stephen and Isabelle’s granddaughter), is compelled to visit a member of Stephen’s battalion in a care home. One of the most emotive events of the book, Faulks takes the opportunity to remind readers of the impact war had on survivors and the sacrifice they made, as Brennan is described by the nurse as ‘soft in the head’. This once again explores the psychological trauma that war inflicts – particularly in the form of PTSD amongst veterans. 

A powerful depiction of the impact that history has across generations

Overarchingly, the novel is a powerful depiction of the impact that history has across generations and the lessons we can learn from it. In particular, Faulks’ depiction of Elizabeth’s enlightenment to her family’s history is important as she realises how the war and the experience of her grandparents are reflected in her “own life and its choices.” As well as this, Elizabeth’s own ignorance of the past is a reflection of wider society today; potentially Faulks’ intention with Birdsong is to encourage readers to delve into their own past. 

This is exactly why Remembrance Day is so important, not only as an opportunity to pay respect to the individuals who fought and lost their lives in the war but as a chance to revisit their stories and ensure they are preserved for generations to come. 

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