Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Standing To

A German Soldier
(by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)
British soldier Siegfried Sassoon, writing as Sherston in his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, recalls mornings before the war: “I loved the early morning; it was luxurious to lie there, half-awake, and half-aware that there was a pleasantly eventful day in front of me” (54).

During the Great War, however, dawn was often “zero hour” – the time scheduled for an “over the top” attack on the enemy’s trenches, moments tense with the possibility of death. Armies at the front had developed the ritual of “stand-to” (in English, a shortening of the command “Stand to Arms”) or in German, “In Bereitschaft” (the term translated as “in readiness” or “on stand-by”).  At the order, every man in the trenches stood at attention and stared in the half-light toward the enemy’s lines.  When it became clear that an attack was not imminent, the troops were allowed to “stand down” and prepare their breakfasts.  Stand-to has been described as “a daily routine of quiet terror.”*

German soldier Anton Schnack wrote of the experience in the poem “In Bereitschaft"  (the original poem in German can be found on page 59 at this link).

Standing To (“In Bereitschaft”)

I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness, the scent of hay, and cobwebs:
I shall never return
To colourful butterflies, flowers and girls, to dancing and violin music.
Somewhere or other I shall fall on stones, shot in the heart, to join someone else who fell wearily earlier;
I shall have to wander through much smoke and fire and have beautiful eyes like the godly, inward-looking,
Dark as velvet, incredibly ardent …What is death? A long sleep. Sleeping eternally deep down beneath grass and plants, 
Among old gravel? Trumpery. Maybe I shall go to Heaven and enter the snow-white night of God’s stars,
His silken gardens,
His golden evenings, His lakes … I shall lie beneath the open sky, looking strange, ancient, portentous,
My mind once again filled with days out in the Tyrol, fishing in the Isar, snowfields, the noise and excitement of the annual fair
In prosperous villages in Franconia, prayers, songs, cuckoos calling, woods, and a train journey along the Rhine at night.
Then I shall become like evening, secret, dark, puzzling, mysterious, benighted;
Then I shall be like earth, lifeless and void,
And totally removed from the things around me: days, animals, tears, deep blue dreams, hunting, merrymaking.
I shall go into death as into the doorway of my house, with a shot in the heart, painless, strangely small. 
            --Anton Schnack, translated Patrick Bridgwater

What is death? In Schnack’s vision, death begins as a doorway that opens into the cool of a summer barn filled with the comforting scent of hay.  Yet once a man has stepped across that threshold, he cannot return to the world of sunlight, music, flowers, and butterflies, but must push past cobwebs to “fall on stones.” Shot in the heart, the dead soldier collapses into weariness, joining the multitude of others who have wearily gone before.

And then the vision alters: perhaps death will offer no opportunity to collapse, but only a long wandering “through much smoke and fire.”  Or perhaps death is a “long sleep…deep down beneath grass and plants.” This last consideration is dismissed as tand or worthless – the memorials of a graveyard are nothing but trifling vanities to comfort the living.    

Flanders, by Otto Dix
Standing ready – to attack and perhaps to die – the soldier’s thoughts continue to circle around the idea of death, next imagining that the doorway of death leads to heaven, a “snow-white night of God’s stars,/His silken gardens,/His golden evenings.” In this idyllic paradise as he lies beneath the starry sky, the soldier becomes one with the mystery of dawn and of death itself.  The man looks “strange, ancient, portentous,” just as the corpses in No Man’s Land must appear to those who gaze out in the morning’s weak light. 

Seeing himself as one of the corpses lying in the open, the man’s mind strays to happy scenes of home:  attending the annual fair, fishing in rivers, hiking in the mountains, singing, dancing. As his mind returns to the commonplace joys of the past, his body becomes one with the earth, “lifeless and void.” The dead remain “secret, dark, puzzling, mysterious, benighted”; they are full of memory, yet emptied of life.

The close of the poem returns to the doorway of death, where the only certainty is that the dead are released from pain and become “strangely small.”  The poem “Standing To” celebrates the small beauties and wonders of everyday life while also recognizing that all life is fleeting and insignificant when set beside the incomprehensible worlds of death and war. 

German War Bond poster 1917
Anton Schnack was a young journalist and student from Bavaria when he was conscripted into the German Army in 1915 at the age of 22.  In 1916, he was posted to Verdun and was discharged from the army less than two months later due to health problems. In 1920, Schnack published sixty war sonnets in the slim book Tier rang gewaltig mit Tier (Beast Strove Mightily with Beast). The poems follow Schnack’s own experience of the war, and his realistic depictions of battle, added to his questioning of the war, would have most likely have prevented publication of his poems during the conflict.  Thirteen years after publication of Beast Strove Mightily with Beast, in 1933 Schnack was among the 88 writers who signed the Oath of Allegiance in support of Adolph Hitler.

Schnack's poetry is virtually unknown, even in Germany, despite the claim that  “he is one of the two unambiguously great poets of the war on the German side and is also the only German-language poet whose work can be compared with that of Wilfred Owen” (Bridgwater, 1985, p. 96).  Describing his poetry, Schnack called his work "elegiac" - mournful and nostalgic sonnets that lament all that is lost in war.
*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (2000), p. 60.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tanks: a regiment of monsters

British Mark 1 Tank
“Never since the dawn of time had there been such a perversion of knowledge to criminal purposes; never had science contributed such a deadly toll to the fanatic and criminal intentions of a war-crazed class.”
--Francis March, History of the World War, 1919 

On September 15, 1916, the British Army recorded the first use in battle of a newly developed weapon: the tank.  Originally known as a land battleship, the term tank was adopted to preserve secrecy during the development of the armored vehicles (factory workers had noted their resemblance to steel water tanks). 

Writing shortly after the war’s end in 1919, American historian Francis March explained, “Originally this was a caterpillar tractor invented in America and adopted in England.  At first these were of two varieties, the male, carrying heavy guns only, and the females, equipped with machine guns…. All the tanks were heavily armored and had as their motto the significant words “Treat ‘Em Rough” (217).

With the introduction of poison gas, gas masks, and heavy artillery shells that obliterated forests and churned the earth, the Western Front had already assumed the appearance of a nightmare. Tanks added another surreal beast to the landscape.  While serving with the French army at the Somme, Anglo-American nurse Mary Borden described the new “regiment of monsters.”

The Hill

From the top of the hill I looked down on the beautiful, the gorgeous, the super-human and monstrous landscape of the superb exulting war.
There were no trees anywhere, nor any grasses or green thickets, nor any birds singing, nor any whisper or flutter of any little busy creatures.
There was no shelter for field mice or rabbits, squirrels or men.
The earth was naked and on its naked body crawled things of iron.
It was evening. The long valley was bathed in blue shadow and through the shadow, as if swimming, I saw the iron armies moving.
And iron rivers poured through the wilderness that was peopled with a phantom iron host.
Lights gleamed down there, a thousand machine eyes winked.
The sun was setting, gilding the smooth crests of the surging hills. The red tents clustering on their naked yellow sides were like scarlet flowers burning in a shining desert of hills.
Against the sunset, along the sharp edge of a hill, a strange regiment was moving in single file, a regiment of monsters.
They moved slowly along on their stomachs,
Dragging themselves forward by their ears.
Their great encircling ears moved round and round like wheels.
They were big and very heavy and heavily armoured.
Obscene crabs, armoured toads, big as houses,
They moved slowly forward, crushing under their bellies whatever stood in their way.
A flock of aeroplanes was flying home, a flight of wild ducks with iron wings.
They passed over the monstrous regiment with a roar and disappeared.
I looked down, searching for a familiar thing, a leaf, a tuft of grass, a caterpillar; but the ground dropped away in darkness before my feet, that were planted on a heap of stones.
A path, the old deserted way of cattle, showed below beyond the gaping caverns of abandoned dug-outs, where men had once lived underground.  And along the path a German prisoner was stumbling, driven by a black man on a horse.
The black man wore a turban, and he drove the prisoner before him as one drives an animal to market.
These three—the prisoner, the black man and the horse—seemed to have wandered into the landscape by mistake. They were the only creatures of their kind anywhere.
Where had they come from and where were they going in that wilderness of iron with night falling?
The German stumbled on heavily beneath the nose of his captor’s horse. I could see the pallid disc of his face thrust forward, and the exhausted lurching of his clumsy body.
He did not look to the right or left, but watching him I saw him trip over a battered iron helmet and an old boot that lay in his way.
Two wooden crosses showed just ahead of him, sticking out of the rough ground.
The three passed in silence.
They passed like ghosts into the deepening shadow of the valley, where the panorama of invisible phantom armies moved, as if swimming.
And as I watched I heard the faint music of bagpipes, and thought that I heard the sound of invisible men marching.
The crests of the naked hills were still touched with gold.
Above the winking eyes of the prodigious war the fragile crescent of the moon floated serene in the perfect sky.
                        --Mary Borden

The scene Borden describes resembles one of the terrifying medieval visions painted by Hieronymus Bosch.  In Borden's poem, across the naked body of the earth crawl “things of iron.” The armored tanks are unnatural creatures that lurch forward like “obscene crabs” or “armoured toads, big as houses,” and they mercilessly crush “under their bellies” whatever stands in their path.

Hieronymous Bosch, Hell
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights
The machines appear more alive than the three living creatures, “the prisoner, the black man, and the horse,” who seem to have unwittingly stumbled into this unimaginable landscape of war. This solitary group passes “like ghosts” into the darkening twilight and joins the “invisible phantom armies,” the hosts of men who are marching forward to face death or who are returning from the front-line trenches numb and exhausted by the horrors they have witnessed.

Men are reduced to phantoms and natural life has disappeared: not a leaf, tuft of grass, or caterpillar remains on the battlefield, only heaps of stones and wooden crosses that mark the graves of the dead.

The industrialized war has taken on a mechanized life of its own, its terrors worse than anything science fiction could imagine.  It is a “superb, exulting war” in which airplanes soar like “wild ducks with iron wings,” and “a thousand machine eyes" wink as the tanks blankly rumble forward, emotionless and cruel. 

Mary Borden
Mary Borden’s poem “The Hill” appeared in her book of sketches and poems The Forbidden Zone.  In the preface to the book Borden wrote, “The sketches and poems were written between 1914 and 1918, during four years of hospital work with the French Army….I have dared to dedicate these pages to the Poilus who passed through our hands during the war, because I believe they would recognize the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures.  But the book is not meant for them.  They know, not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written.