Vox Hunt: Two Tragic Lives

Book: Show us a great biography or memoir.

World War One was a premature, savage and unnecessary harvest of, in Wilfred Owen's words, "half the seed of Europe".  So it's ironic, horribly so - as irony often is – that it was also responsible for one of the lushest flowerings of memoir-writing English literature had ever experienced.

The authors for the most part were University-educated, well-read and sensitive to the waste and laziness of their gilt, Edwardian lives.  They not only welcomed the chance to 'do their bit', but they welcomed the war itself.  They saw it as a purgative, a cleansing agent to purify a decadent country.

This explains the exquisite tragedy of these memoirs.  Suddenly a soldier, shell-shocked into reality, he saw sights that he had never imagined in even his most barbaric dreams. 

But through it all he retained some delicacy of thought, of expression.  Which is why these works are so beautifully written, so insightful, so heart-breakingly clear and unmerciless. 

And it was this lack of mercy which held back the publication of these books.  For the most part they weren't published until the 1930's,  sufficient time to keep the angry words and incriminating memories from doing their damage.

When Edwin Campion Vaughan left for France in January, 1917, he pitied the loved ones waving their boys goodbye – realizing that "the excitement of the venture into the dreamed of but unrealized land of war, eclipsed the sorrow of parting…"  In late August he was climbing over a pile of bodies shredded by shrapnel to get to HQ's entrance, "…as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment.  Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses."

And in the final lines of the book:  "Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future."

Guy Chapman, on the other hand, had no "…romantic illusions.  I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to the thought of England."  Months later that realism was pounded into despair:  "We descended to primal man.  No washing or shaving here; and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole."

By the war's end, he had become bitter and angry:  "Our civilization was being torn in pieces before our eyes.  England was said to be a country fit only for profiteers to live in…England had vanished over the horizon of the mind.  I did not want to see it."

I think that both of these books are pure examples of how beauty and horror can co-mingle in one life and can also occasionally create a work of memorable art.  

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17 responses to “Vox Hunt: Two Tragic Lives

  1. I can not read war memoirs. I can not watch war movies. My husband goes by himself. But, this essay, giving me just a hint of the horror….without dragging me in too deep, grabbed me and held me. I believe, Aubrey, that I could read a lot of history if it were written by your capable hand!So very interesting and heartrending. Humanity still has so far to go.

  2. What interests me especially is that even men fighting to directly protect their country can be so utterly disillusioned and demoralized by war (that's what it's good for). How can we expect men fighting wars of abstraction (Iraq or Vietnam) to feel okay about it?

  3. Ah, you are so right. I majored in military history with an emphasis on 20th c global warfare. I was the only girl in all of my major classes. Most people assumed I had chosen such an abscure major because I was "in to" the military. Au contraire, it was my shocked disbelief and fascination with the societal trainwreck of war, World War I, in particular that drove my interest.
    A Senseless Tragedy that keeps renewing, reinventing and replaying itself even in the 21st century.

  4. War after war, people don't learn.

  5. All wars breed disillusionment and disgust. But I always thought that WWI created an especially intense d/d factor, because the men went in so blithe and joyous. They actually thought that the bloodletting would improve their minds and strengthen their bodies. They couldn't imagine what modern warfare was like, how messy their demise was going to be.
    Concrete vs. abstract wars…this is the reason why WWII was called the last "good war" – "good" because you knew why you were fighting and whom you were fighting. Things were in black and white, and it was a comfort.

  6. Hmmm. A thought just occurred. Does anyone think that the fact that we are seeing less in "Black and White" and more in "shades of gray" (<—yes, Billy Joel song) could be a sign of advancement in some ways? For instance, when people see things in black and white it's their way or the highway. When empathy is allowed in, when the other side's thoughts and feelings are taken into consideration, even minimally, then some doubts do creep in, but the doubts might be a good sign.A sign that humanity is learning that there is not ONE correct way. Well, even if it is a hopeful sign, there are far too many of the world's leaders that need to learn a whole heck of a lot more. Excuse the space I am going to take up here….this is the song: by Billy JoelSome things were perfectly clear, seen with the vision of youth
    No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed the corner on truth
    These days it's harder to say I know what I'm fighting for
    My faith is falling away
    I'm not that sure anymore

    Shades of grey wherever I go
    The more I find out the less that I know
    Black and white is how it should be
    But shades of grey are the colors I see

    Once there were trenches and walls and one point of every view
    Fight 'til the other man falls
    Kill him before he kills you
    These days the edges are blurred, I'm old and tired of war
    I hear the other man's words
    I'm not that sure anymore

    Shades of grey are all that I find
    When I come to the enemy line
    Black and white was so easy for me
    But shades of grey are the colors I see

    Now with the wisdom of years I try to reason things out
    And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts
    Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they're for
    I won't be righteous again
    I'm not that sure anymore

    Shades of grey wherever I go
    The more I find out the less that I know
    Ain't no rainbows shining on me
    Shades of grey are the colors I see

  7. It could either mean that one is giving more thought and realizing that there is no absolute right or wrong. It could mean that one is confused, and is happy to stay in the middle. It could mean that one didn't give any thought at all. In other words it could mean: not sure, don't know, don't care.

  8. I like the "not sure, don't know" but willing to find out more. As for "don't care", that's not it! 😉

  9. Thanks for sharing this. A beautiful post, as always. I've never read a war memoir in English – the ones in Chinese (about WWII) I read were so formulaic and celebratory that you knew they had to be leaving a lot of stuff out. They left me feeling very empty.If I ever feel brave enough to read a war memoir, I'll choose one of these.

  10. I was obsessed with WW1 stuff when I was in highschool. Being Australian, we have the whole ANZAC legend/Gallipoli etc. It was these sorts of memoirs that really grabbed me though.
    I read something recently about the psychology of the soldier – how the army trains men to be, the cameraderie and support for the mentality needed to get through such horrific experieces, but how there is no equivalent support, training, and cameraderie to help soldiers re-adjust to everyday life and "normal" society after war. Of couse there is no education of society (and perhaps it is not possible for there to be) for them to adjust to veterans either.

  11. Many times 'normal' society had no idea. During WWI, there were many instances when the soldiers feared going on leave, not wanting to explain a new type of war to veterans of other wars. They didn't want to discuss what they had seen to family members who only wanted to hear about the heroics that they assumed were being performed 'over there'.

  12. For instance, my grandfather's Uncle Ogden fought at Belleau Wood in WWI–a true horror story. After he came back, they had a hero's parade for him in my home town. Everybody shaking his hand and telling him what a patriot he was. He went home after the parade and hanged himself in the barn. He was 23. And of course, at the time, people were ignorant of the kinds of things that happened at Belleau Wood; they just knew he'd received several medals, including the Citation for Valor (now called the Silver Star) and a Purple Heart. Knowing what we know now about that battle, it's easy to see why he might have preferred death to remembering what he'd seen.

  13. My God, Redz. MY GOD. I'm so sorry.
    Belleau was awful. What I know about it was the Americans going into a black wood in a battle formation 60 years out of date, to be mowed down by German machine guns hidden in the brush and behind the trees.
    They took the Wood, but at such a price!

  14. Vimy Ridge is cited as the event that allowed Canada to come out from under Britain's skirts and into its own as a nation. The government has just now sent 3,600 schoolchildren to Vimy for a commemoration ceremony: one for each Canadian soldier who died during that one battle (or series of battles, to be more precise). Then there was the horrors of Passchendaele, and Beaumont Hamel, on the 1st day of the Somme (July 1916), where within 20 minutes of leaving their trenches, 85% of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment lay dead, dying or wounded. Most of the survivors went into battle again the next day.On the subject of good WWI memoirs, I also recommend "Over the Top", a now out-of-print book by an almost alarmingly cheerful Yank who joined the war early and fought alongside the British. I also enjoyed Lines of Fire, a collection of journalism, essays, poetry and fiction by women writers of the period from many nations, some of whom went to the front.

  15. BrownA, I thought 'Over The Top' sounded familiar!
    I scoured the collection of WWI books I have in my living room, and sure enough found it: by 'Arthur Guy Empey, Machine Gunner, Serving in France'. I have a 1917 edition – featuring a photo of him: square-jawed, holding a cigarette.

  16. In college, I took a class titled "War and Morality". What an eye opening experience that was, as we studied the history of war and its ever-changing rules of engagement. I remember watching the original "All Quiet on the Western Front", banned in Germany (book & movie) by the Third Reich for being anti-war.
    It would have been a better class if the prof wasn't so keen on using triple and quadruple negatives during the exams. It took more energy to figure out the questions than it did to answer them.
    Back to topic, WWI was such a blow to humanity. It was senseless in almost every regard.

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