Sunday, March 11, 2018

Envelopes of pain

It was the news no one wanted to hear; it was the knock at the door that everyone dreaded. Donald Overall was a young boy, but it was a morning he never forgot:
I remember the day we heard very distinctly .… Mother and I were downstairs in the main hall when the doorbell rang.  I was hiding behind her as she was handed an envelope.  I remember she opened the letter immediately.  I didn’t know what it said, but she screamed and collapsed on the floor in a dead faint. I tried to wake her up; I didn’t know what was wrong. I was holding on to her skirts and called out for help and an elderly couple who lived in a lower flat came out and comforted both of us.  Mother came round slowly and they eventually got her upstairs into the bedroom. She was there for about ten days and it was while she was getting better, that she turned onto her side and said to me, ‘Your father’s dead, he won’t come back.  Now you are the man of the house, you must do things as best as you can.’ And I said, ‘Me, Mum?’ I was five years old.  That changed my life; it had to.*

Families of the war dead received news of their soldier’s death in a variety of ways: officers’ next-of-kin received telegrams (Australian telegrams were pink), while the families of the other ranks typically were sent an official form in the mail (British death notices were sealed in buff envelopes). Notification was slower during major offensives with heavy casualties, and a fellow soldier might write the family if he saw a man killed or found his body.  Some families heard the news through word-of-mouth from a soldier on leave, and officers or chaplains might send a personal letter if they had the time.  It was also possible to receive letters from the fallen soldier, written before his death but arriving after official notification of his death had been received. 

War Time

Telegram sent to Mrs H Allen,
notifying her of the death of her son
Young John, the postman, day by day,
In sunshine or in rain,
Comes down our road with words of doom
In envelopes of pain.

What cares he as he swings along
At his mechanic part,
How many times his hand lets fall
The knocker on a heart?

He whistles merry scraps of song,
What'er his bag contain—
Of words of death, of words of doom
In envelopes of pain.
            --Mary Eliza Fullerton 

Over 60,000 men from Australia died in the First World War, and an estimated one in every four families mourned a son or husband who had been killed.** But for those living thousands of miles from the battlefields where their loved ones had died, there was no object to which their grief could attach.  They were deprived of bodies to prepare for burial and graves to visit, and as historian K.S. Inglis notes, “the war which created such unprecedented levels of bereavement may actually have tended to reduce its public expression. The British government discouraged deep mourning as bad for the nation’s morale.”†  In “War Time,” the only physical link with the dead soldier is the envelope that brings the news. The jarring contrast between the carefree postman and the “words of death, words of doom,” implies that society expects mourners to internalize their emotions, to seal them in metaphorical envelopes of pain. 

Mary Eliza Fullerton was an Australian writer and activist who campaigned for women’s rights and protested military conscription.  In his history of Australian women writers, Dale Spender writes,
Mary E. Fullerton
Given that Mary Eliza Fullerton is acknowledged in H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature, it could almost be said that here was one woman poet who had ‘made it’ into the literary canon—except of course that she rates no mention in the Oxford History of Australian Literature, or in Geoffrey Dutton’s Literature of Australia, and she is not included in the Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature. Why she should have been omitted from these later surveys and selections is a matter for speculation, for it cannot be because she was unknown or that her work was without merit…. Mary Fullerton wrote provocative polemic poetry which still makes its point today.”††
Her poem “War Time” appeared in The Breaking Furrow, published in 1921. 
* Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead, Bloomsbury, 2011, pp. 108-109.
** Bruce Scates, “Bereavement and Mourning (Australia),” 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War,, Accessed 10 Mar. 2018.
† K. S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne UP, 1999, p. 98.
†† Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers, Spinifex, 1988, p. 203.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The bannerless, unhating dead

Cerny-en-Laonnois cemeteries
Photo courtesy of Abellio†
Running along an east-west ridge north of Paris, the Chemin des Dames saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Great War during the First (1914), Second (1917) and Third (1918) Battles of the Aisne. Estimates of the combined casualties suffered by both sides in the Second and Third Battles of the Aisne exceed 600,000 men. 

Situated on the Chemin des Dames, the village of Cerny-en-Laonnois was completely destroyed; a French guide reports that it “no longer existed after the war,” and 53% of the area was designated a “zone rouge,”* an area so environmentally damaged as to be unfit for human habitation. Where the village once stood, thousands of bodies were buried. Today, visitors find one of the most unusual cemetery configurations on the Western Front: a French and a German military cemetery adjoin one another, meeting in one corner where no fences, walls, or boundaries separate the two cities of the dead. 

Here is the final resting place of 5,150 French, 7,526 Germans, and 54 Russians.  Only half of those buried at Cerny-en-Laonnois were able to be identified; the rest lie in mass graves or ossuaries. Nearby, memorials are also dedicated to the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (part of the British Army known as the “Old Contemptibles”) and the 38th African Infantry Division (which included troops from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria).  Following the Second World War, a memorial chapel was privately built at the site “to further the reconciliation of people by the memory of their sons killed on opposing sides of the battlefield.”**

A year after the war ended, French poet René Arcos published Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others).  His poem “The Dead,” describes enemies joined by shared suffering and loss. 

The Dead
Grave in No Man's Land,
Margaret Hall, 1918-1919
Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The widows’ veils
In the wind
All blow the one way.

And the mingling tears
Of the million sorrows riverwards
All flow the one way.

Rank by rank, shoulder to shoulder
The bannerless, unhating dead,
Hair plastered down with clotted blood,
The dead all lie the one way.

In the single clay, where unendingly
The dying and the coming worlds make one,
The dead today are brothers, brow to brow,
Doing penance for the same defeat.

Oh, go clash, divided sons,
And tear Humanity asunder
Into vain tatters of land—
The dead all lie the one way;

For in the earth there remains
But one homeland and one hope,
Just as for the Universe there is
But one battle and one victory.
            —René Arcos, translated by Ian Higgins

René Arcos
Fighting with the French, René Arcos was injured early in the war, but returned to the Western Front as an anti-war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.  In 1923, Arcos became editor-in-chief of the newly published literary magazine Europe. In the inaugural issue, he wrote,
We speak of Europe because our vast peninsula, between the East and the New World, is the crossroads where civilisations meet. But it is to all peoples that we address ourselves … in the hope of averting the tragic misunderstandings that currently divide humanity …. It is urgent that we learn to look higher than all the interests, the passions, the selfishness of individuals and ethnic groups. There can be no victory won by man against man.***
† Further photos and information on Cerny-en-Laonnais and Arcos' "The Dead" can be found at
* Cerny-en-Laonnois,” Commémoration du Centenaire de la Bataille du Chemin des Dames, Dimanche 16 avril 2017, p. 36,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
** Etienne Verkindt, “Cerny-en-Laonnois: la Chapelle-Mémorial et les cimetières français et allemande,” Le Chemin des Dames,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
*** René Arcos, “Patrie Européenne,” Europe, No. 1, February 1923, pp. 110, 113,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dance of Death

The Nameless 1914 (Den Namenlosen 1914) by Albin Egger Lienz
Twenty-eight-year-old German poet and playwright Hugo Ball greeted the outbreak of the First World War with enthusiasm, declaring in his early poem “Splendor of the Flag” (“Glanz um de Fahne”) that the corrupt world could be renewed by “abandoning itself to the primitive energy released by the conflict.”* In the early months of the war, Ball volunteered repeatedly for the German army, but three times was turned down due to a heart condition. Wanting to see the war first-hand, he traveled to Belgium, where his ideals were shattered. In his diary, he protested, “the war… is based on a stupid mistake; men have been mistaken for machines; it is the machines that should be decimated, not the men.”° By November of 1914, at the Belgian front, he wrote that “the world had fallen prey to diabolical madness.”°°

Soldat und Tod (Soldier and Death), Hans Larwin 1917
Upon returning to Berlin, Hugo Ball’s anti-war stance made life nearly impossible, and in May of 1915, he emigrated to Switzerland. Less than a year later, he and a group of fellow writers and artists opened Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub that mixed avant garde entertainment with politics, giving rise to the Dada movement.  One of the more shocking cabaret numbers was a poem Ball had written, “Totentanz 1916” (Dance of Death), a parody of a German marching tune and the popular cabaret song “That’s how we live.” With a chorus of soldiers’ voices, the performance scathingly described soldiers “engaged in an erotic dance of mutual slaughter as they thank the Kaiser for the privilege of dying.”  
A German music video of the poem (with English subtitles) can be viewed here.††

Dance of Death, 1916

So we die, we die
And die every day,
For it is so comfortable to let ourselves slip away.
The morning, stuck in sleep and dream,
By midday already there,
Come evening deep within our graves.

The Path of Glory by Edmund J. Sullivan
The battle is our pleasure-house,
Our sun is made of blood,
Death our emblem and our password.
Child and wife we leave behind:
What use have we for them!
When we can only rely upon ourselves!

So we kill, we kill,
And every day we kill
Our comrades in the dance of death.
Brother, present yourself before me!
Brother, your breast!
Brother, that you must fall and die.

We don’t grumble, we don’t groan,
Every day we hold our tongue
‘Til our leg wrenches from the hip.
Hard is our resting place,
Dry is our bread,
The dear Lord bloodied and soiled.

We thank you, we thank you,
Herr Kaiser for your mercy,
In choosing us to die.
Sleep, sleep softly and still,
Till you are woken
By our poor bodies, shrouded beneath your lawn.
Hugo Ball, 1918
            —Hugo Ball, trans. Edmund Potts†††

Scholar Patrick Bridgwater has remarked, “If Ball had been living in Germany at the time, ‘Totentanz 1916’ would have been treasonable.” The poem names enemy soldiers as brothers and comrades, depicts the Kaiser as a calculating murderer, and re-imagines the glorious ideal of war as a sordid brothel. Patrick Bridgwater’s translation of the second stanza’s first line reads, “Battle is our bawdy house.”‡‡

Not surprisingly, “Dance of Death 1916” was used by Germany’s enemies for their own propagandist purposes. The Allies printed copies of this poem and other German literature that criticized the war, and the leaflets were dropped behind German lines in August of 1918, hoping to break morale.‡‡‡  Even poetry was weaponized in the Great War. 
* Hugo Ball cited in Geert Buelens, Everything to Nothing: the poetry of the Great War, revolution and the transformation of Europe, Verso, 2015.
** Hugo Ball cited in Patrick Bridgwater, German Poets of the First World War, St. Martin’s, 1985, p. 71.
° Ball cited in Bridgwater’s German Poets, p. 73.
°° Ball cited in Buelens, Everything to Nothing.
Timothy Shipe, “Hugo Ball,” Encyclopedia of German Literature edited by Matthias Konzett, Routledge, 2000, p. 68.
†† Music by H.J. Vermeulen, animation by Artur Poterski and Anne Fie Salverda.
††† Hugo Ball, “Totentanz—The Dance of Death,” translated by Edmund Potts, The Project: A Socialist Journal, 30 June 2014,, Accessed 19 Feb. 2018.
‡ Bridgwater, German Poets, p. 74.
‡‡ Bridgwater, German Poets, p. 176.
‡‡‡ Bridgewater, German Poets, pp. 74-75.