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Lest We Forget

“We can bear almost anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard”

Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was published in November, 1928, nearly ten years exactly since the end of the war it documented. It was a rich time for the publication of manuscripts, diaries and novels from the war: written perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, when the pain of the survivors was just beginning to wane. Or perhaps they were written out of fear: that a topic of great monetary potential was being passed over – that a calamity that had been called ‘great’ was about to be forgotten.

Before it had been two years in print, it had sold 2.5 million copies and had been translated into 22 languages. Its coarseness and vulgarity was taken by some to be mere attention-getting for its schlock and shock value. For its ugly realities ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt by the Nazis in 1933.

The novel opens with a statement which is a declaration of honesty and distance, that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. The author’s intent is only to describe the experiences of a single platoon of German soldiers, whom “though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.

Specifically, it is the story of Paul Bäumer whom, along with the rest of his class, was urged by his professor to join the army. His classmates were eventually scattered throughout the trenches that had just begun to circulate, branching like veins, from Belgium to Switzerland. Battles were never mentioned by name, but retained a shroud-like presence in every chapter, a destructive force even when the guns are silent or when the soldier is on leave.

Paul endures the filth and boredom of trench life that was never mentioned in his professor’s idealistic tirades. The stress and fear which makes a soldier long for home is relieved only by the detachment he feels when he gets leave to visit that haven, wary of describing experiences no one could understand. It creates a sickness of mind (‘shell shock’, ‘neurasthenia’) that would only be recognized, and just barely, later in the war.

Towards the end of the war, all of Paul’s friends are either missing or dead. Despite the rumors of peace he only sees a future that is empty, trapped within a generation that will be perpetually misunderstood. On the day of his death, the report from the front to headquarters was “all is quiet on the western front”.

And it is there that the novel ends; a harrowing journey that ends in the worst way, with a death that means nothing, that symbolizes nothing – a single, blank, unrecognized effort among millions.

In 1930 the book became a film of the same name. Screenings were besieged by Nazi-organized protests; there were mob attacks on theater goers: proof that the war was not over. But for all the ugly attention, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its lead actor, Lew Ayres, became a star.

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Ayres work on the film did something more important than inaugurate a career. It made such a profound impression on him that in 1942 he was registered as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. He eventually served in the Pacific as a medic, setting up evacuation hospitals and providing care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea, winning three battle stars. All of the money he earned during the war he donated to the American Red Cross. When Ayres resumed his career, he continued his work in film, but never attained the peak he attained when he played a soldier suffocating in mud and despair.

I have seen the film, and it is an honest, honorable effort. Hollywood however could not help but tie too neat of a bow on an ending which was supposed to mirror war’s hopelessness and desolation. Towards the end, Paul – who counted butterfly collecting amongst his civilian hobbies – sees a butterfly alight on the soil and wire of No Man’s Land. He is off screen, but the viewer sees his arm outstretched towards the creature. Suddenly, there is a crack of a sniper’s rifle, the arm stiffens, and then is still.

Before the screen is dark, there is an image of white crosses, marking an expanse of German graves. It fills the screen. Superimposed on the crosses is another image: that of a group of young soldiers clad in gray and wearing their pickelhaube helmets. One by one, each looks over his shoulder towards us: his expression full of disbelief, distrust, confusion, fear. It is a vision that is hard to forget.

Remarque’s bleak and realistic depiction of war struck a chord with the survivors – of the warfront and the home front – and commentary around the world was passionate, whether it was positive and negative. Critics accused him of denigrating the German war effort, of exaggerating its horror and sins. They insulted his endeavor. In short, many of them did not believe him.

I began this piece with a quote from the novel. The cries referred to are not from the men, but from the horses – terrified, eviscerated, their eyes rolling upwards in white-eyed panic. The sound is not human, but it is not quite animal. The horses haven’t the wit to wish for death, to pray to God or beg for help. All they know is an agony that is unexplained and inescapable.

The men heard these soul-destroying cries and one, named Detering, – who had been a farmer – is particularly appalled. Before the all clear is sounded and the wounded men could be gathered, he tries to bolt from their trench to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery. But he is stopped, lest their current position be revealed. In disgust, he says “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war”.

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For me, this one episode puts the lie to all the claims that ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was nothing but a fantasy published to demean the German army and cash in on the new pacifism. Simply said, no one could make something like this up. This is another vision which is hard to forget.

And this could be war’s saving grace. That the dreadful memories will one day lead to a universal disgust and leave us only with a collection of histories that can’t be forgotten.

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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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Blighty and A Blessing

During war-time, soldiers blessed the hospitals.  The clean walls were heaven to them; they called their nurses angels of mercy.  And they thanked god that they had been taken away from the fields of torn wire, mud and upturned, staring faces.

After the regional wars, the civil wars, there came a World War.  World War I had its share of commissioned officers as well as young men – ignorant, adventurous – volunteering.  They were expected to step forward, to fall into war’s scissor-like embrace.   Their enthusiasm made them deaf to the whirring of blades.  And the hospitals were ready, with weary anticipation.

Should these havens be located at the frontline, wreathed with the smells of phosgene and blood, they are no more than shelters pocked with shrapnel – though the scarlet cross painted on their roofs was supposedly a shield against attack.

These were the Casualty Clearing Stations; where triage was performed without pause, where surgeries were performed without rest, and bodies were gathered without count.   When there is no more room, the wounded slept on the ground, when there is no more hope, they would wait.

A few miles beyond the guns and the shivering earth were the large houses.  Formerly the homes of the wealthy, still cloaked in the metallic allure of the gilded age, they were prepared for new careers.  Stairways as sweeping as a debutante’s gown became pathways for gurneys.  Empty ballrooms were crowded with beds filled with khaki uniforms and nascent hygiene.  Perhaps before death, the soldiers saw visions of ghostly dancers and heard the pale, sentimental waltzes.

But even farther away, there would be relative quiet.  The large, country houses were still enlisted into service, this time as convalescent hospitals.  Here, as in all hospitals during the first world war, young polished ladies who were not content to sew socks or write letters had taken themselves off the marriage market to choose a different stage.  In every theater of war:  France, Belgium, Russia, Egypt, the Dardanelles – their dainty hands became seamed and calloused as they ‘did their bit’:  far away from tea dances and satin gloves.

The great ladies who commandeered these convalescent hospitals did so as completely as their husbands ruled their regiments, in distant, unidentified lands.   Margherita van Raalte married the 8th Baron Howard de Walden in 1912.  At the time the name was over 300 years old, granted to Lord Howard by Elizabeth I in 1588, supposedly in gratitude for his bravery in battle against the Spanish Armada.   Margherita possessed the aristocrat’s structure – her neck was long, and took its languid time to meet her body.  Her fingers were slim and graceful:  designed to dangle jewels or to barely hold a fan of feathers.  And her eyebrows rushed downwards:  the titled lady’s suffering, hooded glory.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

NPG x46653; Margherita Scott-Ellis (nÈe van Raalt), Lady Howard de Walden by Cavendish Morton

After holding the ancient name for only a few years, she too was fighting.  She defied the Director General of Army Services who refused to give her permission to take on a Matron and eleven private nurses and establish a convalescent hospital in Egypt.  It became the Convalescent Hospital No. 6, in Alexandria.  A newspaper article from January 10, 1916 read:

“A visit was paid to Lady Howard de Walden’s British Red Cross hospital which was formerly a palatial residence.  Much marble has been used in its construction, and it stands amidst beautiful grounds.  Among the patients were 36 New Zealanders.  Lady de Walden’s husband, who is serving with the Forces in the Dardanelles, is one of the richest men in England, and both husband and wife have been generous and indefatigable to a degree.  New Zealanders who come to this hospital are indeed fortunate.”

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This patient is wearing his ‘hospital blues’.  Smoking a pipe, smiling broadly – perhaps the war is over for him – a ‘blighty’ wound lurking beneath his beaming exterior  – and he is bound for home.  The men flanking him might be mates from his battalion, if it weren’t for the red crosses winking from their biceps.  The marble fountain, suddenly masculine, that they rest upon might have been giddy and romantic once.  The grounds extending behind them are vast and manicured, flinching at the new voices, jovial and therapeutic.

Margherita’s efforts did not go unnoticed.  She was named Commander, Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) as well as Dame of Grace, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.  During peacetime, she might have been brushed off as a society doyen.  But with the outbreak of war she was among the many women who turned their attentions from linen tablecloths to linen poultices.  They gained the approval of writers, doctors, their husbands – and the blessings of their jaunty blue-clad patients.

 

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’.

There But For The Grace Of God

In World War II my father wanted to be a marine.  This did not come to pass:  but as with all volunteers in wartime, his offering of assistance did not go ignored.  The Navy took him.

He floated around San Diego on a troop ship, the U.S.S. Cullman – gray, fast and armed:  a nervous blueprint designed for defense against Germany’s submerged battalions.  His ship voyaged to and from the Pacific Theater, filled with shattered, seasick actors.

USS Cullman APA-78

This ocean is dense with locations that are still gilded with menace, ever since the war destroyed their reputations, and my father’s ship stopped at many of their ports.  And during the summer of 1945, they innocently skirted the malignant waters around Tinian island. 

When the U.S.S. Indianapolis was split into slivers by the Japanese submarine I-58, her remains were driven into a red delirium throughout these currents.  Days passed before Navy command noticed the loss, and rescue ships were then despatched from Ulithi, an atoll whose lagoon is jagged with dead war ships.  This was in early August – the U.S.S. Cullman was traversing these bitter islands less than a week before.   

If the Indianapolis’ objective had not been such a covert one, father’s ship could have been one of the first ones on that historic scene…I think of these twisted, stunning logistics often.  The image of sharks and submarines, twilight-colored menaces, lurking about the ship’s sides – close, familiar threats – is as piercing as the initial twitch of an earthquake. 

It is a vision of fear that held endless families in its devilish grip for years.  Many lost loved ones and feel that muscular thrall to this day.  This was such a close thing…and therefore I can’t help but think that there but for the grace of  God went my father:  to Tinian, to Guam, to China, to Midway, to the Marshall Islands, to Tokyo Harbor, to Pearl Harbor.  Many others did not come back, but they are not without grace either:   nor courage, nor audacity…buried deep and honored by continents and oceans, revered beneath unknown tombs.

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

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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Angels Of Mercy

In 1914 they left their bright summers behind.  They deserted their tea parties – the china patterns, the decorative sandwiches, the hidden orchestras.  They betrayed the silks, ribbons and diamante veils of their priviledged girlhood.  Naive, romantic and foolish – against their parents' wishes, against their better judgement – they left their homes to go to war.

They left to become VADs.  Since 1909, the Voluntary Aid Detachment provided nursing services for the hospitals of Great Britain.  By World War I they were supporting the registrated nurses in France and Belgium – watching the stretchers in Mons lying in the rain, soothing the chaotic chlorine-choked breathing of the soldiers in Ypres.  They scrubbed floors, changed sheets, cleaned wounds the world had never seen before, changed dressings that were stained and dank:  healing was a messy process.  They watched madness grow like parasites that fed on memories and turned the mind into bedlam.

What made them leave their measured and embroidered lives?  Perhaps to follow their young men, their unknown suitors, for they were out there too.  They fought during the day, uprooting the family trees of strangers, and at night they stared into the moon like wolves, seeing the face of a girl they once knew - little knowing that she might be close by, her hands as bloody as theirs,

"…gazing, half hypnotised, at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy knaki, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy blood-stained bandages." (Vera Brittain, 'Testament of Youth')

Maybe it was a sense of guilt, a sense of rebellion or a sense of adventure that made them journey to this place where a lady could no longer avert her eyes.  Enemy planes did not respect these new homes, despite the red cross painted on the roof like a protesting hand.  They stared at the dragonflies made of wood and paper swarming over the horizon.

And when peace was signed in 1918 – what happened then?  They had matured in a forcing house of terror, grief and responsibility.  They were caught between their own modest past and a new, fierce generation.  Cynical and merciless, this glossy youth had no patience with the sad multitudes – silent obligations – returning from the war.  They were lost between the past and present, and stood in the way of the deadly party that was about to begin.

"…I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history's cruelest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun…" (Vera Brittain, 'Testament of Youth')

 

 

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Lest We Forget

 

I'll be away from my computer tomorrow, and so unable to offer any homage to Veteran's/Remembrance/Armistice Day.  So I'll do it now.  The postcard here is from my collection of World War One cards; I'd estimate that I have over 150.   This particular kind was embroidered in colored silks – after the war they lost their popularity and were no longer made.  Along with this image, I thought I'd  include a poem by Wilfred Owen, my favorite war poet.  The problem lay in choosing which one.  The title I did have in mind is rather less well known than 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.  It's my favorite, with a real kicker of a final line:

 

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

 

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