Tag Archives: November 11

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.

Image result for british 18-pounder

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.

Image result for royal artillery memorial

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.

A Stout Fellow

I purchased him many years ago.  I enjoyed his shielded eyes, his snubbed cigarette, his meaty arms.  He seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, a stout fellow.

He looks healthy and swaggering, in a year when the western world was in despair.  World War One was no longer a romantic journey, a cleansing of a society whose dreams had been cosseted for too long. The end of 1918 was gray and hungry – the attractive ennui of pre-war Europe had been replaced by the cynicism of hopelessness.

And yet this young man dared to stare into the sun, a masculine, muscular obstacle to its heat.  He was either enjoying his basic training, or was trying to avoid it. He was ready. He was, as they say, spoiling for a fight.

Hail Fellow Well Met

However, he only had two months left – the war was a weary beast, and ready to die.

Camp Benning was established in October of 1918 – World War One would end in a month.  The American Expeditionary Force had been streaming into France since June of the previous year. The following year, the year this brash American had his photo taken, was the year for fighting.  Chateau-Thierry in May.  Belleau Wood in June.  The Aisne-Marne counter-offensive in July.  St. Mihiel in September.  The Meuse-Argonne offensive in September.

This soldier, this streetwise Doughboy posturing in front of his canvas tent, could be on his way to the Argonne Forest:  to join conscientious objector-turned hero Sargent York.  The Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge would last for all of October…perhaps he was on his way to Flanders.  In November, Americans would be pushing towards the Meuse-Antwerp line; to the east they would be threatening Metz.

There was much he could still do.  He could do what nearly 120,000 other Americans did in less than two years, which was die.  Like all the armies of that disenchanted war, the AEF stumbled onto unknown fields, like amiable warriors:  ready for a good time at the terrible expense of the enemy.  No matter what nationality, every volunteer wanted to be sure they could look up into war’s lowering sky before ‘the fun was over’.  It was only supposed to last for six months, after all.

Now, four years later, men were still dying, and men were still eager to fight.  Still stamping fear out as this young infantryman would presently stamp out his cigarette.

I do hope he never got the chance to go.  It’s impossible to know where he went after the war had ended.  Whatever happened to him, he is in a way kept safe – within these words, within the golden frame I keep him in – he continues to live.

Words and images.  Every Veteran’s Day these are brought out.  Every year poppies are worn; they are laid in bloody splendor at the bases of cenotaphs and grave sites.   We remember the victims of conflict.  We view the tomb of The Unknown Soldier with reverence and regret.  Perhaps with a little anger as well, at this distant – or not so distant – courage and foolishness.  And every November 11 we renew our vow to ‘Never Forget’.

Over There

I have a small book – my apartment seems to seethe with them – which I found, with some joy, many years ago.  It was published in 1917 and called, “Sanitation For Medical Officers”.  Its signature reads:  “John Quincey (?) Brelpitt/304 W. Boyle Ave./Los Angeles, Cal.”

Hygiene Under Fire

John was evidently a very persevering doctor-to-be.   His notes were excessive and detailed.  There is much underlining and circling of words, and every now and then one comes across a notation in the margins (“wounded – officers first – then privates – then officers of enemy – then privates”)  These pages are like a book of hours, giving insight into a terrible, bloody religion. 

This manual has much to teach us:  there is a chapter on the care of feet – including the proper trimming of nails.  There is one that addresses sickness:  smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, anthrax…even plague. Lice, fleas and mosquitoes are discussed with familiarity – as if one was gossiping about a hated neighbor.

 In his notes, John impassively outlines the methods of disposing dead horses (“cut off legs”) and men (“burning – takes lots of fuel and a long time”).  He writes in great detail about the delousing process, on shell shock (“in special cases may be an actual trauma of the nervous system – loss of memory – dementia”) too.  Possibly, the army was beginning to understand this affliction, to realize that it is not only the body that suffers.

By the time this book would reach John’s hands, there would probably be only one year of fighting left.  Was he impatient – worried that he would miss the ‘fun’ on the front lines?  Or had the truth of the Great War seeped into the home front like tears…were there too many soldiers – veterans at 20 years – coming home with bodies bandaged and distorted?  Had their eyes been blue – yet on returning had become overcast and clouded?  What did he think was over there?

There were many things.  The uphill climb to Cantigny under a veil of bullets that tore like a fabric of death.  Following Patton’s tanks at Saint Mihiel.  The trees of Belleau Wood, splashed with blood, with the Marine Sargeant’s words echoing:  “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”    The destroyed vineyards of Chateau-Thierry – where the champagne scented air had settled into the mud and corpses long ago.  Amiens…Arras…’The Lost Battalion’ in the Argonne Forest…as the soldier was busy, so was the doctor/intern.

Reading through this book, with its cover the color of dried blood, a vision of the ‘Great War’ appears – beyond the maps with their flags, their countries, rivers and salients.    This is a vision that goes below, into the dark, the fog, the slime and disease of trench life.  It isn’t about victories or attacks.  It isn’t about courage.  It is about a life that no human should live, yet which has been lived over and over again.

“My stretcher is one scarlet stain / And as I tries to scrape it clean / I tell you wot – I’m sick with pain / For all I’ve ‘eard, for all I’ve seen”

– ‘Rhymes of a Red Cross Man’, Robert W. Service, 1916