Tag Archives: the great war

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.

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.

Poppies

The poppy is an uncomplicated creature.  It has one color.  It is not parasitic or solitary.  It grows simply, and in groups, like schoolchildren.

But its symbolism is rich, with a magnitude that has spanned many countries, and many centuries.  For such a little flower it carries meanings that are vast and weary; that are eternal and quiet in the earth.

In Greece and Rome the poppy meant sleep and death – worlds beneath the cold eyelid.  Opium was extruded from its seeds and sleepy breaths colored ancient dens and palaces.  Poppies decorated the tombstones of their dead, welcoming the lengthy sleep.  In Persian literature, the poppy is called the eternal flower – for emotions unrelenting and without end; for loyalty without limit.

The poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz were billowing and fearsome, promising an everlasting sleep.  In Egypt opium was daubed on the neck and wrists like a hypnotic perfume.

It wasn't until 1915 that the significance of the little red flower passed into Europe as well, when the ground was already red.  Towards the end of the year a poem was published – a trifle sentimental, a little maudlin, as most affairs of the heart are – and its beginning is familiar:

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…

The fragrant drops of blood growing amongst the white purity must have been a shocking sight to the soldier; in a poem it might be less awful but no less meaningful.  The poppy had become a part of their spoiled landscape.

"That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

1915 was a terrible year.  Gallipoli – Ypres – Nueve Chapelle – Loos – The Battles of the Isonzo…the poppies must have shuddered in the stinging breeze.

"We are the dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields

When the war was over, and the hardness and the bitternress had set in, the poppy had adopted another symbol – the four blasted years that had called the Edwardians in from their play, that had rubbed the gilt off the lily.  Its brave, bloody image was burnt on the dying soldier's eyes.

On Veteran's Dan/Remembrance Day the popppy is worn, sewn into wreaths, displayed in houses (Aubrey does this):  it is still held high.

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields"

 

 

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