‘Hay saw Bizerta burn…’: Scottish poetry in North Africa during World War Two

Scottisch poetry

The social historian, critic and poet Angus Calder wrote in 1999 a short overview of the reasons why so many of Scotland’s foremost 20th century poets found themselves fighting in the North African theatre of World War Two. Calder, having explained the circumstances surrounding their presence there (centred around the famous 51st Highland Division which played a central role in the Allied Forces’ Desert Campaign against the Axis Forces at El Alamein), went on to briefly analyse snippets of their war poetry, structuring his essay around a sonnet entitled ‘North Africa’ written by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010).

Morgan himself served non-violently in the Royal Army Medical Corps in North Africa and witnessed the often gruesome aftermath of many battles. This traumatic experience was to surface later, in the 1970s, when he wrote his long and enigmatic sequence The New Divan, and recalled dreading ‘stretcher-carrying’ and having to see soldiers ‘drained of blood’ and weighing as little as a feather. This work owes much to Morgan’s early reading of Sufi mysticism and the Divan of Hafiz, and underneath many of his cryptic poems lies the discovery during the war of his intellectual and homosexual identity. Morgan enjoyed his more sensuous experiences, particularly in Cairo, during the 1940s, yet there is always a sense that while Morgan suffers in the midst of the fighting and chaos, he is at all times a self-preservationist, keen to quietly and obediently serve his time and to gain from the war whatever is of personal value to him.

That said, in ‘North Africa’ Morgan commemorates his poetic contemporaries who fought in the same place at the same time, poets such as Hamish Henderson, Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch and Norman Cameron. However, he also briefly alludes to ‘Hay’ who ‘saw Bizerta burn’. Hay was the great Gaelic poet George Campbell Hay (1915-1984) who had previously tried for over a year to avoid conscription due to his pacifist beliefs. Given the choice between prison and military service, Hay opted for non-violent service in the army and was often given the job of nightwatchman, a job that was to irrevocably traumatise him. On the night of 7th May 1943 he witnessed from his post the flames and screams resulting from the saturation bombing of then German-occupied Bizerta, by his own Allied Forces side, and he was never the same again. In the translation of his poem ‘Bizerta’ he asks:

What is their name tonight,
the poor streets where every window spews
its flame and smoke,
its sparks and screaming of its inmates,
while house upon house is rent
and collapses in a gust of smoke?
And who tonight are beseeching
Death to come quickly in all their tongues,
or are struggling among stones and beams,
crying in frenzy for help, and are not heard?
Who to-night is paying
the old accustomed tax of common blood?

What makes Hay stand out from his contemporaries is that he is the only World War Two poet to consistently and empathetically engage with the local population and their plight as innocent victims caught in the cross-fire of a war waged on their own land. Even Edwin Morgan only engaged with the culture of North Africa in so far as he could profit from it intellectually or aesthetically, whereas Hay was interested in two things – the exchanging of language and culture, and of friendship. In the English translation of his poem ‘Atman’ Hay spells out his sympathy for  North African culture and companionship by pitting a petty thief – Atman – against figures of authority such as the law represented by a callous judge. Hay maintains that while Atman is impoverished and must steal to live, he is far richer in cultural and core existential terms than the dried-up judge:

I know you, Atman:
you are a man and you are alive,
two things the judge is not,
and that he has lost his chance of being ever.

(…)

When the decent judge of the court
gets the fill of his eye of my back,
I will come aside to welcome you
across the street if I see you.

Sidna Aissa was crucified
along with thieves on the top of the hill,
and it would be blasphemy, Atman, to deny
that you are a brother of mine.

It is worth noting that fascism only surfaces once in all of Hay’s war poetry, for he took no interest, like his contemporaries did, in the moral imperative of an ideological war on fascism. Hay simply did not care which force won or lost, as long as he could carry on forging relationships with new cultures and absorbing their languages. Hay, like Hamish Henderson, was a highly skilled polyglot capable of acquiring new languages in months but Hay also believed, once he had a grasp of Arabic, in teaching his new friends like Atman about his own deeply threatened Gaelic culture and way of life. This fear of the erosion by war of cultural uniqueness reached its peak in Hay’s long poem Mochtar is Dughall which was never finished and printed incomplete only two years before Hay’s death. This poem begins with the murder of a Scottish soldier Dughall and his Arab friend Mochtar by a heat and thirst crazed Nazi soldier out in the desert. The poem then moves on to deeply genealogically assess what has been lost in the meaningless deaths of both of these men. Hay spends most of the poem drawing on his North African experiences to paint a picture of Mochtar’s family history:

A world apart is each son of man,
a living world in himself is every person;
an earth’s sunshine and darkness,
tides and solstices of blood.
How many generations go to shape us?

Tellingly, the poem ends shortly after Hay starts to expound Dughall’s Highland family history. This is not out of imaginative exhaustion, but perhaps the belief that an Arab friend might take the same level of interest in the exchange of languages and cultures. It also suggests that Hay was deeply affected by his experiences, to the point of losing grasp on the contents of his mind. Shortly after the war he was sent to Greece where he was threatened with knives by a right-wing militia who believed his easy manner with the locals implied he was a Communist spy. Back in Scotland Hay was to spend much of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals, moving between bursts of creativity and crippling silences. All along his innate empathy and interest in other cultures was stymied or resulted in deep physical and mental hurt; yet that was Hay’s nature and now his work stands out for its humanity as well as its almost singular engagement with Arab and Islamic cultures during World War Two.

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