This past Sunday Boyfriend and I went to the Ventura Flea Market. In many ways I prefer it to the one market to rule them all, The Rose Bowl Flea Market. It's within walking distance of the cooling beach; while within The Bowl, the heat of thousands of bodies buying, selling and negotiating all manner of treats, compounded by the heat created by a bowl shaped arena located inland is dazzling, if not beguiling.
Anyway, so last Sunday I bought this postcard. The faded, sepia caption reads: 'The “Fighting Fifth” (Norhumberland Fusiliers) after the battle of St. Eloi'.
And on the back, besides the printed proclamation “Passed by Censor” and written greetings from Esther to Miss H. Wakeling of Carlton County New Brunswick, it also says, 'Assisted by the Royal Fusiliers, the “Fighting Fifth (Norhumberland Fusiliers) took with splendid dash the first and second line trenches at St. Eloi'.
This is an Official War Photograph, from 1916. It means that in all likelihood it is not quite the spontaneous explosion of exuberance one hopes for, when studying a picture of soldiers who appear to be safe and celebrating. No doubt volunteers were requested (“You, you and you.”) and were commanded to be happy.
But they did win this engagement. Rushing the German trenches with mad fervor, some mining below their strongholds to blow them skyward in a muddy, bloody mass, they did carry the day. I found this description of them, from a soldier who was there, Phillip Gibbs, in his book ‘Now It Can Be Told (1927):
"I saw the Royal Fusiliers and Northumberland Fusiliers come back from this exploit, exhausted, caked from head to foot in wet clay. Their steel helmets were covered with sand-bagging, their trench-waders, their rifles, and smoke helmets were all plastered by wet, white earth, and they looked a ragged regiment of scarecrows gathered from the fields of . Some of them had shawls tied about their helmets, and some of them wore the shiny black helmets of the Jaeger Regiment and the gray coats of German soldiers. They had had luck. They had not left many comrades behind, and they had come out with life to the good world. Tired as they were, they came along as though to carnival. They had proved their courage through an ugly job. They had done "damn well," as one of them remarked; and they were out of the shell-fire which ravaged the ground they had taken, where other men lay."
So they did survive with spirits intact, like any good Englishman would. They had protected their comrades as army and University had taught them. They had returned with souvenirs because families back home were waiting for them.
They were alive.
Like all World War One geeks I scourred the postcard through a magnifying glass, my weak eyes red and protesting. So what. Damn…my eyes.
Anyway, I saw the men holding (what I think are) their portable trench mortars aloft. There’s one fellow to the left who thought he’d want to be captured for posteriety wearing his gas mask. There’s a man, bare-headed, seated on the ground, center front, who’s lighting up. Throughout, in fact, cigarettes (no soldier went far without his Woodbines) are clenched between smiling, tired lips. Helmets (the ‘tin hats’ had only recently been introduced) and rifles are hoisted above their heads.
But on the horizon – looking like a promise, a rebuke, or a threat – there is a rifle held high, higher than all the others. Balanced on top is that unknown soldier’s helmet, reflecting the arrangement to be found on every soldier’s grave.