Tag Archives: ‘lest we forget’

Silks

“Silks” – postcards framing squares of silk decorated with silk embroidery – were graceful communiques that were popular during a graceless and ugly quartet of years, 1914-1918.  They originated in France and Belgium and disappeared shortly after the Armistice, their fey romantic prettiness no longer needed.

Soldiers passed their bloody and shaking hands over the soft prisms – the colored threads that formed flowers and flags.  The patriotism was a comfort, a sentimentality that seeped through their fingers like new blood.  Thus encouraged, they scribbled a few sentences and mailed their cards home, soaring like iridescent birds to a home front that waited with clasped hands.

I own a few of these icons of loneliness.  One bears the badge of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.  The years, “1914 – 15 – 1916”, indicate that the card was sent in 1916.  Or perhaps the soldier was being optimistic, thinking to add the war’s span of years, from beginning to end. The silk is spotted, the embroidered knots are coming undone, but the stitching is still intact.  It traces the motto of the regiment “Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt” (Where Right And Glory Lead).  Draped across the howitzer is a banner quoting “Ubique” (Everywhere).

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The artillery was a key element of the British arsenal.  But to be important in battle also means being a target.  Kings, bannermen, gunners.  During World War I, over 49,000 members of the RA died.  This soldier would have been in the thick of it – each detachment composed of 5 or 6 men, working in an awful harmony to prime and fire their laborious gun.  If he worked a trench mortar, he would have some protection, if a howitzer of 18-pounder, he was out in the open.

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I hope this fellow made it through the war, settled into a comfortable life, embraced a family full of compassion and understanding.  But at the same time I hope he never forgets the sodden trenches, the filth, the stench, the months of boredom, the minutes of staggering fear; the muddy clouds of Ypres, the deadly sun of the bombardment on the Somme:  the kaleidoscope of war.  I hope he had the strength to accept this mosaic of memories, despite their ability to savage the emotions like wolves.  I hope he was able to live with the grief, yet to have the strength to cry, silently so, as he watched future generations march to their own wars.

In 1925 The Artillery Memorial was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner, dedicated to the casualties the Regiment suffered in ‘The Great War’. Whomever the man was who sent this lovely card, I hope he lived to accompany his family to their annual excursion to the memorial, that he could see his silhouette as well as those of his comrades in the bronze statues and stone reliefs.

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I hope he was not a memory, carried like a postcard in a pocket, as they lay their bouquets of blood at its base every November 11.

Walking Through The Poppies

Flower collapsed and defeated
Crushed in curling despair
A scarlet splash
That once grew from a distant wreath
Resting against a foreign plinth
Begging one to remember
A bright and bloody symbol
That told a story
Of thunder and tanks
Of Flemish mud grown thick with gore
Of barbed wire that wore tattered flesh
Like fabric swatches
A smeared cruel banner
Rooted in honor
A dying icon
A forgotten call to arms
Trampled and silenced across the heel
Of a discarded shoe
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Battles of Emotion

I collect World War One postcards.  I have a book full of sad expressions, seen on one side of the card, read on the other.  War strains the body, the mind, the heart.  Sometimes it destroys them altogether.

A few of my postcards have correspondence written on the back – a student's handwriting in Gothic curlicues, a farm boy's misspelled print.  A husband's wry greeting ('Dear Wife'), a son's report ('also strained a sinew'). 

Though different, they are all examples of emotions stretched taut as a soldier's line of communication with his loved ones is extended over trenches, barbed wire, blasted forests, oceans, danger and loneliness.  Running low to the ground, sentiments of all nationalities traverse numerous No Man's Lands and pass, shuddering, by the charnel houses of Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli and Ypres (pronounced like a sigh of despair) until they reach their individual safe havens.

I'm lucky to have in my collection a correspondence between Herbert and Nell – their affection having traveled via a 3 1/2" x 5" magic carpet made of cardboard – I have four cards from battlefront to homefront.  I'm sure (I hope!) there are more.  I'll present one here:

My Dearest Nell
These words are just my thoughts dearie as my heart dearie is always with you, and I am always thinking of you & I know you are of me, roll on the time when I shall see you again, I am simply longing for it, it will be all the nicer when we do meet wont it love.  Good bye just for a little while
Your devoted love
For Ever
Herbert
XXXXXX

Another example of the emotion of battle probably never happened.  Many histories of World War One mention it, and then dismiss it:  a high-ranking officer was being driven – with difficulty – to the battlefront, after the Battle of Passchendaele had churned it into an earthy stew.  As conditions worsened, he eventually burst into tears, crying, 'My God, did we really send men to fight in that?"

I think in the thousands of years of warfare this must have happened – many, many times – those that witness such devastation are so overcome that they can only find solace, and escape, in tears.

That are many things about war that should be remembered.  Maps.  Arrows.  Battles.  Geography.  Statistics.  Strategies.

But what must be remembered are the faces – and what the eyes saw, and what the lips said, the blood that was red - not black or sepia - the flesh that was once warm, and then abruptly turned cold; the emotions traveling from one front to the other and the sea of hands extended; desparate to receive them. 

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