Tag Archives: world war i

Spirited Souls

One gilded afternoon in 1899, the Wyndham sisters were seated together on a couch, pliant yet statuesque, within the velvet recess of their drawing-room in Belgravia.  Their satin dresses, weightless and ethereal, merged into an ivory cloud, dimpled with lavender and gold.  Their limbs were slim and exhausted, starved of all bourgeois musculature by centuries of aristocratic breeding.  Ballerina necks balanced on nests of bones, smooth with the lazy flesh of diaphanous bodies.  Their chilly, patrician hands barely had the strength to hold a teacup – warmed only by the bronze liquid that shattered the porcelain into shards of light.

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These ladies – Madeline Adeane, Pamela Tennant and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho – were called “The Three Graces” by the Prince of Wales, Windsor’s glittering roué. They should have been content with their decorative existence as royal favorites, draped across sofas like animal skins, clothed like the sea in gowns of froth, their fashionable spines bent by the bones of whales.  But there was a wary intelligence, entwined with the bland vanity, which lurked in each of the sisters’ faces.  Like a predator, it waited: within eyes as dark as Pandora’s Box, under the brows’ dusky horizons, trembling on subtle lips.

Pamela, the youngest and prettiest of the three, had the misspent spirit possessed by those cursed with such charms.  Overly aware of her advantages, she had the disconcerting habit – though possibly excusable in one so lovely – of rising from the dinner table and facing the wall if she felt she was receiving insufficient attention.

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Lady Mary had the discipline and logistical talent to seamlessly govern a large household, a philandering husband as well as a string of noteworthy lovers.  Her amours ranged from Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt – long past but never over his affair with the courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters.  Mary traveled with Blunt to Arabia, where she would bear his child, in 1895.

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Madelaine was looked on as the forgotten Wyndham, only because she had to audacity to be content with her lot.  Shy and gentle, she was the closest to the Edwardian feminine ideal.  Happy, with a talent for needlework and bringing up her children, Madelaine seemed to embrace all of the housewife’s virtues.

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The Wyndham sisters shared a DNA of foolishness and restlessness, tempered with a soupcon of quietude.  But their dreaming wisdom was designed for speculation and fancy. They had the leisure for thought.  Because of these serene qualities they were prominent members of a unique social group called The Souls.  (Lord Charles Beresford supposedly said: “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls — I shall call you the ‘Souls'”.)

Weary of salons absorbed with politics and gossip, The Souls sought to distance themselves from such mediocre concerns.  They were bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind…their intellect was both arrogant and amusing; their arguments louche, ridiculous and brilliant.

The Souls sculpted their dialogues as if they were works of art, with wit that was nimble and flirtatious.  Lovers and ideas were shared with incestuous abandon.  They were daring, but beautifully so.

The Wyndham sisters’ lives of exclusivity, culture and indolent wisdom would end – as it would for all members of their élite class – with the First World War.  In 1918 peacetime, tethered with a new cynicism, began…but their exquisite lives had ended many years earlier.

“I am and always shall be sorry for wounding the feelings of anyone I care for but otherwise it is difficult to wholly regret days of beauty and romance.”

– Mary Constance Wyndham

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.

Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

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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A Life In The Balance

She is destined to be a problem child.  The poised wrists, the dainty profile with tiny pierced ears that coil like shells, the crossed ankles – serene and lady-like inside leather buttoned boots – create a spoiled pose that needed no encouragement from parent or photographer.

Playground Poise

A dress with scalloped petticoats, the triad of birds nesting within the brooch at her collar, the knitted socks, patterned with waves as frothy as her skirts…all are the results of a child’s pleadings, and the parents’ desire to please their girl.

She is balanced on a swing, childhood’s favorite vehicle – a means of transport into the clear, empty air.  Before adulthood insists on a goals and guilt…a child insists on a journey into the unknown, and will look towards the sky for their anonymous voyage.  But Faber Photographers were not ones to consider a metaphor.  

This photograph was taken in the early 1900’s, when subjects no longer stared into a camera’s lens in stilted terror.  In less than 10 years she will be standing inside the doorway of her home with her mother, nodding to guests who have come to pay tribute to her newly acquired womanhood.  Her hair will be twisted high, exposing her neck and the silky skin of her shoulders:  it will never curl down her back in childish abundance again.  Once she becomes a young woman delegated to lace dresses, waltzes and corsets to set her spine and ribs into an acceptable anguish, she will have forgotten her swing, her oceanic socks and shiny boots. 

 And should she hear that the studio where she once held onto childhood’s intimacy so tightly was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, will she care?  Or will it be too late:  and all memories vanished and beyond the pain of regret?  

Then, in ten years more, she will be married.  How will the world have changed?  All of Europe will be pale and weak, her blood soaking into the fields and rivers of Belgium, France and Italy. After the Somme,Verdun, the nine battles on the Isonzo river, Delville Wood – names that carry a weight of despair – she can do nothing but kneel in the mud and wait for the blessings of silence and defeat.

America will enter the war in 1917.  In every city across the nation, young men will bid their families farewell…will this child become one of the weeping ladies standing on the train platform, brave in her delicate misery?  Will she see her husband again – or will he fall in one of the terrible American battles:  Argonne-Meuse, Belleau Wood, Cantigny?

This little girl has much to look forward to, and much to fear.  Her joys hang in the balance, between a sheltered, golden world and a world rooting in war’s debris like a dog searching for food.  She looks down from her swing in childish judgement, her life in the balance – but perhaps she doesn’t believe in metaphor, either.

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

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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The War

I spent today watching the first five installments of Ken Burns'  World War II documentary, 'The War'.  And of course I was inundated with the images:  airplanes drowning in the sea, a parachute impaled on winter branches – its living occupant having run away or been shot away, soldiers with faces looking like puzzles with the wrong pieces forced into place.  There were the terrible corpses of the dead, and the even more awful faces of the living.  Barbed wire on Omaha Beach.  Soldiers advancing onto shore:  with no sound, you didn't hear the bullets, so when they fell, it looked like they had merely tripped and fell.  And then stayed there.  Color reels of ships erupting into bloody flames.

And while watching this, I was reminded of something; it was as if my mind had tapped me on the shoulder, to make sure I didn't forget a news story I had been hearing for the past few days.  The story reported the trimming down of questions for the American Citizenship Test.  A local reporter had thought it a pithy idea to ask an American-On-The-Street these questions.  Questions like, who was President during World War I, what was Susan B. Anthony known for, etc.  Finally one person answered, "These questions are stupid.  All those people are dead."

Now, let me start by saying that I believe that in memory, people and events can live on.  To forget that a person has lived is to grant him a fate worse than death.  I would like to ask the testy American who was so disinterested in the dead – the soldiers I watched today:  do they bore you as well?  Do the war dead become unimportant by virtue of the decades and decades that separate your life from theirs?

They screamed for help, drowning at Normandy, ignored by the troop ships passing them, whose commanders were instructed not to stop under any circumstances.  Theirs were lifetimes in hell, existing for days in swamps, jungles, foxholes and trenches.  Is it stupid to remember them?  There are barely 100 survivors of World War I still alive.  When they pass on, do we forget them too?  Should we forget that war as well?

I study World War I.  I'm surrounded by books, memoirs and photographs from that wasteland.  And I cried today as I listened to stories over 60 years old.  I was glad, too - because my tears felt like contributions to the memory of the dead. I can't forget war's pettiness, its disillusionment, its tragedy.  I couldn't forget.  How dare one forget?  

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