Tag Archives: world war one

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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Dorothy, 1923

The photograph itself is cut at different angles, faceted like a diamond.  Inside that diamond is its jewel, a girl who is poised like a bird, its wings demure and folded.  At the back of the photograph, in a hobbled, feminine script with deep scrolls and loops as tight as unopened flowers is written:  ‘Dorothy, 1923’.  It is a year that is advanced enough to both remember the past decade and to suspect what lies ahead as each year becomes faster and louder.

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There were brocaded memories of the Ballet Russes, of Bakst’s untamed color and Nijinsky’s sublime scandal. The Russians inspired a fascination for exotic allure and colors that blossomed from the passionate bowers of their Oriental sunsets.  Hypnotized  ladies walked the streets, wearing velvet turbans and lassoed in ropes of pearls like untutored empresses.  Then there was a War.  And as the decade ended, men and women on three continents still endured nightmares of the bloody earth and the scythe-like barbed wire.

But in 1923 there came a distant agitation.  Girls dreamt of feverish nights, bare shoulders, silk kimonos and fringed hems that tickled their knees.  Fast asleep, they searched for clubs buried in cities like bunkers; passwords jingling like keys in their pockets.  Freedom was a coin they tossed in the air:   revolving in the light, each side was illuminated:  the freedom of youth, the freedom of their sex.  And their liberation would remain in play while it continued to spin beyond the clutches of gravity.

Dorothy is balanced between these two decades that beckon to her, that whisper in her curled and dainty ear.  Her eyelids, weighed down with kohl and Vaseline, are dark and feral – the suffering eyes of Theda Bara that she remembered from her girlhood.  Her headband is as rich as a Russian diadem, peppered with sequins and glittering across her forehead like a belt of stars.    There is a part of her that aspires to the velvet seductions of the temptress.  It is possible that as soon as the photographer departed Dorothy leaned back on her leopard divan and picked up her cigarette holder – raising her dusky lids only to peer through the arabesques of lilac-scented smoke.

And yet perhaps not.  Dorothy has bobbed her hair – not a common style in the early 1920’s – a single acquiescent curl is all that remains of a childhood spent in ringlets, pigtails and tangles.  She is not wrapped in tinted velvets or shining brocades – nor is she decorated with gilded tassels or garlanded with furbelows:  the ornamentation of fashion’s garish past.  Dorothy wears a simple – albeit richly patterned – jacket; beneath it is a chemise unimpeded by twisting corsets:  its simple silk lying against her skin in androgynous comfort.

Dorothy is a member of ‘The Lost Generation’ – those that came of age during World War I.  The term would become popular with its use in The Sun Also Rises, published only three years after Dorothy sat for this portrait.  Her downcast eyes are eloquent; dwelling perhaps on memories of newspaper columns listing the war dead, of maps of Ypres, Gallipoli, the Piave River:  faraway places, but none with the alien glamour of her youthful dreams.  Lightly eccentric, her youth tarred with grief, Dorothy is young enough to see no sin in forgetting; but old enough to know what she dares to lose.  Dorothy has witnessed history:  the Gilded Age imploding upon itself in wasteful decadence, The Great War and the end of society’s innocence and petty deceits.    She is poised to take part in more:  the Jazz Age, the Bright Young Things and their subsequent tarnish, the Crash, the Depression.

But when Dorothy grows older hopefully she will accept the wisdom of history and remember these times.  Hopefully she will observe and learn, and not fall into the pit of Santayana’s warning, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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 World of Weariness

She couldn't be bothered.  She couldn't be bothered to straighten her glistening spine.  The world didn't interest her sufficiently to open her eyes wide and give it her full attention.  Their black depths remained hidden and inaccessible behind gray shores.  Her pink arms, weak and rounded, are barely strong enough to hold a fan torn from an ostrich's wingspan.  Her fatigued, exhausted posture is not the result of a vitamin deficiency, of the A's, B-12's, D's dissolved in a surfeit of cocktails.  It is merely the languid weariness adopted by young society in the early 1920's.  Before the flappers fluttered, before hems tickled ladies' knees, before Art Deco's sonogram was viewed at the Paris Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs in 1925, the 'Lost Generation' staggered out of World War One and made a high art of indifference and cynicism.

Her gown shines like a cold moon and is the color of a fish freshly pulled out of the sea.  It glides effortlessly over her body, baring her rounded shoulders but trailing across the floor: covering it like a nacreous lake.  There is no corset; there are no laces, no buckles, no hooks, no buttons.  They would make it just too complicated…

…and she couldn't be bothered.

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The Grim Art

Many years ago the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibit that occupied an embarrassed corner of one of its galleries.

It was a showing of German art, from that pocket of time between the World Wars.  No one wanted to see those pictures.  Art that carries its truth like an unextracted knife is not popular.  What I saw were reminders of the green-hued visions the artists saw in the trenches, or the equally gangrenous sights trapped inside their minds like a poisonous fog.  Those memories could only be faced if they bled onto the canvas, or were torn from a lithographer's stone.

I visited this collection five times.

One artist interested me in particular.  His name was Otto Dix.  He treated his disturbing subjects with skill and delicacy.  Like Egon Schiele's twisted nudes, they were shocking and magnificent.

In 1924, Dix unleashed a portfolio of rabid dogs struggling in their restraints; he called the series of drawings 'Der Krieg' ('The War').  At this time, carousing in her perfumed mud, Germany was daring and suicidal – pressing a razorblade to her jugular, tapping it with her bloody claws to see how far she could go before the pale skin broke.

I was stunned by the lines that knitted a blanket of lunar architecture:  craters ripped out of a protesting earth by iron fists roaring out of the howitzers and tearing handfuls of dirt from the meek crust before throwing it into the black sky.

 There was a small etching of a fearsome sculpture:  a skull – all hair, skin and cartilage melted into the earth.  Its expression had evaporated into the atmosphere.  And yet it lived:  sprouting from a cracked jaw, through a destroyed mouth, over teeth that slanted like a rotted fence, inside wriggling orbits, were worms.  Vibrant and hungry, symbolic and hated – they hinted at the afterlife that the missing skeleton was experiencing, as they waited to be harvested from their field of bone. 

Nothing was easy to look at.  I feel awkward posting these two examples here.  I think I was aware of the slender, yet powerful lines, the charismatic contrasts, the scumptural dark – before I noticed the corpses, the landscapes:  the entire grisaille of hopelessness.

People are inclined to ignore misery.  It is a human tendency.  But at this eloquent exhibit, art stepped in…not to make the war to end all wars palatable, but to make sure it remained unforgettable.

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Beyond The Pale

I received for my birthday – from a friend who knows my tastes well – a very unusual book:  "The Occult and Psychical Sciences:  Psychical Phenomena and The War", by Hereward Carrington.  It was originally published in 1918, when war wasn't qualified by a number, a date, or a place.  It was just The War – people didn't think there would ever be another one.

The book is a collection of thoughts, theories, sittings and readings – dreamed up and written down during the course of the war, from 1914-1918.  During this time, when continents were drowning in sorrow, psychics, spiritualists and mediums tricked, cheated and bilked their clients - while at the same time giving them immeasurable comfort.

One passage of the book was a 'communication' from 1916 via Ouija board between Michael Whitty, ('M'), editor of Azoth Magazine ("A Monthly Magazine of Philosophy, Theosphy, Mysticism, Spiritualism, Physical Research, Higher Thought, Symbolism, Astrology and Occultism") and a soldier ('O') – dead, but apparently still not beyond his pain:

O:  When very young – bayonet still in me
M:  Where were you fighting?
O:  I must not tell
M:  Why not?  If you have been killed it does not matter now.
O:  I will not tell
M:  Why wil you not?
O:  Yes boss…orders not to…
M:  Are you French?
O:  No
M:  Are you Italian or Russian?
O:  No Canadian
M:  Oh, a Canadian, eh?
O:  It hurts
M:  You are deluding yourself.  If you are dead you are in a new body – the bayonet may be sticking in the old body but it is not really sticking in you now.
O:  Just try a bit yourself
M:  Will you do what I tell you?  If you will I can help you - 
O:  Are you sure you can whats it
M:  Will you do it?
O:  If I can
(M.  tells him to wish himself back where his body was and find it, and then he would see the bayonet in it and realize that it was not really in him now)
O:  If I go back now I'll get in a scrap with a bloody german
M:  The dead don't fight with each other
O:  They still scrap
M:  Where is your mother?
O:  Been dead years
M:  Well you think of her and call her and she will come to you.
O:  Nothing doing
M:  Well, I will pull it out for you.  Place yourself so that the head of the bayonet is in my hand here (holding out hand) – is it there?
O:  Yes go easy go easy
M:  All right – it won't hurt (suddenly pulling as if removing the bayonet).  There – it's out now.  I've got it.
(pause)
O:  Its OK now
M:  Well, goodnight –
O:  Thanks

I don't accept this book as a statement of fact, but rather as a sign – or sympton – of the times.  Mothers, sisters, wives and lovers were desperate to hear from their departed ones, or to at least hear what happened to them:  there are times when ignorance is not bliss, at all.

So if this little dialogue convinced even one reader that a living man was able to extract a bayonet from the side of a suffering spirit, I say let it stand – if not on truth, at least on the consolation it gave, when there was none left in the world.

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The Christmas Truce

December 1914:  the cold winter was made colder by disappointment and homesickness.  The wind and rain shouted across the plains of France, whipping and biting like harpies.  And when the rain collected in the trenches, the men were forced to stay partly submerged in the freezing water – water poisoned by the corpses lying hidden in its depths.

All that summer, when volunteers marched to meet the acclaim of their fellow citizens and certain death by strangers, experts said that they would be home for Christmas.  This was merely a squabble to occupy one's time during the turgid, frivolous summer, before coming home in time for the holidays.  This was just a bit of healthy exercise.

But dominoes once pushed must fall, and now the Western Front stretched like a livid wound from Switzerland, through France, to end on the Belgian coast before bleeding into the North Sea.

On Christmas Eve, things seemed bleaker than ever.  Fogs swathed the huddled soldiers like a cold breath of despair.

Suddenly, there was a shimmering of light over the German trenches.  British sentries watching for fixed bayonets, instead reported sights of bayonets wrapped with tiny lights lifted above the parapets.  Small fir trees, bearing lit candles, were held high, daring the sniper's fire.  But the night was silent.

Isolated, flickering spots of light were seen all along the Front, in the lifing dusk.  Tremulous reminders of the sacred date; they were a timid sharing of holiday greetings.

German voices were raucous:  'A happy Christmas to you Englishmen!"  And then they were singing:  "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht"  The British retaliated by singing the carol in English.  There was, in fact, a merry volley of carols:  "The First Noel" ricocheted against "O Tannenbaum", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" was answered with "Adeste Fideles" – as lively as any exchange of bullets.

Battalion leaders ventured into No Man's Land to shake hands.  After this tacit agreement, men from both sides scrambled out to look into the enemy's face and discover a humanity that they never expected to see.

Gifts were exchanged:  tins of bully beef, badges, caps, buttons, chocolate, cigarettes.  Photographs of families and sweethearts were shared – as were the stories, plans and hopes that graced each face like a halo.  Frostbit hands smoothed pictures torn and creased with repeated viewings; small holes in the margins showed where they had been pinned to the dirt walls of the trenches.

Impromptu discussions broke out, small oases of friendship.  Men spoke of their homes, their schools, what they would do when the war ended (the conflict was only four months old, so such a topic could be discussed without derision). 

The Christmas Truce of 1914 ended as it had begun, by mutual agreement.  The men then retired into their homes in the earth, back to living with fear and forgeting the unlikely camaraderie that had flourished so spontaneously.

This Truce is seen as myth, as legend, but most importantly it is seen as the truth.  The memories of that early morning lives with reverence in the memories of those that were there.  

But whatever had been learned during those few hours of companionship would be torn and distorted within the next year.  Poison gas at Ypres.  The slaughter at Gallipoli…history would change everything.  But for the time, the fellowship of a common holiday held sway and the one thing that the soldiers learned about each other was that a terrible mistake had been made.  And now they just wanted to go home.

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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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World War Lost

This past Sunday Boyfriend and I went to the Ventura Flea Market.  In many ways I prefer it to the one market to rule them all, The Rose Bowl Flea Market.  It's within walking distance of the cooling beach; while within The Bowl, the heat of thousands of bodies buying, selling and negotiating all manner of treats, compounded by the heat created by a bowl shaped arena located inland is dazzling, if not beguiling.   

 

Anyway, so last Sunday I bought this postcard.  The faded, sepia caption reads:  'The “Fighting Fifth” (Norhumberland Fusiliers) after the battle of St. Eloi'. 

And on the back, besides the printed proclamation “Passed by Censor” and written greetings from Esther to Miss H. Wakeling of Carlton County New Brunswick, it also says, 'Assisted by the Royal Fusiliers, the “Fighting Fifth (Norhumberland Fusiliers) took with splendid dash the first and second line trenches at St. Eloi'.

 

This is an Official War Photograph, from 1916.  It means that in all likelihood it is not quite the spontaneous explosion of exuberance one hopes for, when studying a picture of soldiers who appear to be safe and celebrating.  No doubt volunteers were requested (“You, you and you.”) and were commanded to be happy.

 

But they did win this engagement.  Rushing the German trenches with mad fervor, some mining below their strongholds to blow them skyward in a muddy, bloody mass, they did carry the day.  I found this description of them, from a soldier who was there, Phillip Gibbs, in his book ‘Now It Can Be Told (1927):

 

"I saw the Royal Fusiliers and Northumberland Fusiliers come back from this exploit, exhausted, caked from head to foot in wet clay. Their steel helmets were covered with sand-bagging, their trench-waders, their rifles, and smoke helmets were all plastered by wet, white earth, and they looked a ragged regiment of scarecrows gathered from the fields of . Some of them had shawls tied about their helmets, and some of them wore the shiny black helmets of the Jaeger Regiment and the gray coats of German soldiers. They had had luck. They had not left many comrades behind, and they had come out with life to the good world. Tired as they were, they came along as though to carnival. They had proved their courage through an ugly job. They had done "damn well," as one of them remarked; and they were out of the shell-fire which ravaged the ground they had taken, where other men lay."

 

So they did survive with spirits intact, like any good Englishman would.  They had protected their comrades as army and University had taught them.  They had returned with souvenirs because families back home were waiting for them.

 

They were alive.

 

Like all World War One geeks I scourred the postcard through a magnifying glass, my weak eyes red and protesting.  So what.  Damn…my eyes.

 

Anyway, I saw the men holding (what I think are) their portable trench mortars aloft.  There’s one fellow to the left who thought he’d want to be captured for posteriety wearing his gas mask.  There’s a man, bare-headed, seated on the ground, center front, who’s lighting up.  Throughout, in fact, cigarettes (no soldier went far without his Woodbines) are clenched between smiling, tired lips.  Helmets (the ‘tin hats’ had only recently been introduced) and rifles are hoisted above their heads. 

 

But on the horizon – looking like a promise, a rebuke, or a threat – there is a rifle held high, higher than all the others.  Balanced on top is that unknown soldier’s helmet, reflecting the arrangement to be found on every soldier’s grave.

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Vox Hunt: Two Tragic Lives

Book: Show us a great biography or memoir.

World War One was a premature, savage and unnecessary harvest of, in Wilfred Owen's words, "half the seed of Europe".  So it's ironic, horribly so - as irony often is – that it was also responsible for one of the lushest flowerings of memoir-writing English literature had ever experienced.

The authors for the most part were University-educated, well-read and sensitive to the waste and laziness of their gilt, Edwardian lives.  They not only welcomed the chance to 'do their bit', but they welcomed the war itself.  They saw it as a purgative, a cleansing agent to purify a decadent country.

This explains the exquisite tragedy of these memoirs.  Suddenly a soldier, shell-shocked into reality, he saw sights that he had never imagined in even his most barbaric dreams. 

But through it all he retained some delicacy of thought, of expression.  Which is why these works are so beautifully written, so insightful, so heart-breakingly clear and unmerciless. 

And it was this lack of mercy which held back the publication of these books.  For the most part they weren't published until the 1930's,  sufficient time to keep the angry words and incriminating memories from doing their damage.

When Edwin Campion Vaughan left for France in January, 1917, he pitied the loved ones waving their boys goodbye – realizing that "the excitement of the venture into the dreamed of but unrealized land of war, eclipsed the sorrow of parting…"  In late August he was climbing over a pile of bodies shredded by shrapnel to get to HQ's entrance, "…as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment.  Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses."

And in the final lines of the book:  "Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future."

Guy Chapman, on the other hand, had no "…romantic illusions.  I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to the thought of England."  Months later that realism was pounded into despair:  "We descended to primal man.  No washing or shaving here; and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole."

By the war's end, he had become bitter and angry:  "Our civilization was being torn in pieces before our eyes.  England was said to be a country fit only for profiteers to live in…England had vanished over the horizon of the mind.  I did not want to see it."

I think that both of these books are pure examples of how beauty and horror can co-mingle in one life and can also occasionally create a work of memorable art.  

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