Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Sit and Sew

Detail of WWI recruiting poster

Referring to your memorandum of February 12th, relative to the appointment and training of colored nurses for colored soldiers, at the present time colored nurses are not being accepted for service in the Army Nurse Corps, as there are no separate quarters available for them and it is not deemed advisable to assign white and colored nurses to the same posts.
            W.C. Gorgas, Surgeon General, U.S. Army, Feb. 14, 1918*

As America mobilized for war in 1917, political rallies, recruiting events, posters, and news editorials reminded them of why they were joining the bloodiest conflict the world had yet known: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy.  But an editorial appearing in the New York Tribune voiced the concerns of many Americans and challenged that premise:
Democracy implies equality of privilege and equal obligation of service.  If we fight for this for the world in general we ought to be prepared to practice it among ourselves.  At present we mingle democracy with discriminations.  All the elements of our citizenship do not stand on the same level.**

Crisis, March 1918
The editorial denounced the inequities and harsh treatment that black soldiers were regularly experiencing, but it failed to mention that black women who attempted to assist in the war effort were also the victims of prejudice. Hired for factory work at salaries considerably below those paid to white women performing the same jobs, black women were also frequently barred from volunteering as canteen and aid workers. Perhaps most concerning was the treatment of black nurses. Emmett J. Scott, Special Advisor of Black Affairs to the Secretary of War, sent a memo denouncing the War Department’s discriminatory policies:
 It is difficult for me to understand why some colored nurses have not been given an opportunity to serve. This vexing question is being put to me almost daily by colored newspaper editors, colored physicians, surgeons, etc., who are constantly bombarding my sector of the War Department, inquiring what has been done, and urging that something should be done in the direction of utilizing professional trained and efficient colored nurses.***

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, playwright, journalist, and political activist. During the war, she was the only black woman to serve on the Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense (organizing women’s groups and supporting women’s war efforts), and she was active in the Circle of Negro War Relief, establishing a local chapter to provide assistance to black soldiers and their families.†  

 In 1918, her war poem “I Sit and Sew” was published in the A.M.E. Church Review.

I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew – a useless task it seems,
Alice Dunbar-Nelson
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams –
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath –
But – I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew –  my heart aches with desire 
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe 
But  – I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
            —Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Stifled, despairing, yet dreaming, a woman occupies her hands with a mundane domestic task while her heart and mind yearn to leave for the battlefields.  She is not naïve in imagining a glorious war. This woman knows of the “wasted fields” on which lie “writhing grotesque things/ Once men.” It is in fact because of these men who are “Pitifully calling me” that she longs to travel to “that holocaust of hell,” to assist the wounded where they “lie in sodden mud and rain.” But—as is repeated three times in the poem—she is condemned to wait, to sit, to sew.

Crisis, August 1918
In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson’s lengthy essay “Negro Women in War Work” appeared in Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War.††  Her essay describes how “Into this maelstrom of war activity the women of the Negro race hurled themselves joyously. They asked no odds, remembered no grudges, solicited no favors, pleaded for no privileges. They came by the thousands, hands opened wide to give of love and service and patriotism” (375).

And yet as Dunbar-Nelson acknowledges, “The problem of the woman of the Negro race was a peculiar one….There were separate regiments for Negro soldiers; should there be separate organizations for relief work among Negro women? If she joined relief organizations, such as the Red Cross Society, and worked with them, would she be assured that her handiwork would reach black hands on the other side of the world, or should she be great-hearted and give her service, simply for the sake of giving, not caring who was to be benefited?” (376).

Dunbar-Nelson’s essay asserts that black women “did all that could be done—all that they were allowed to do” (377), but they were blocked from fully supporting their troops.  Like Emmett J. Scott, she found the order excluding black nurses from overseas service deeply troubling: “Colored women since the inception of the war had felt keenly their exclusion from overseas service. The need for them was acute; their willingness to go was complete; the only thing that was wanted was authoritative sanction” (378).

The African American community feared that without black nurses, black soldiers would receive inadequate medical care. Social codes forbidding intimacies between the races were likely to prevent white women from nursing black soldiers, and segregated hospital facilities were likely to offer substandard medical care. The concerns were real: during the war, black soldiers died at a disproportionately higher rates due to poorly staffed, segregated hospitals.†††

The poem “I Sit and Sew” testifies to the complex intersections of gender and race in America.  In the conclusion to her essay “Negro Women and War Work,” Dunbar-Nelson praises black women for not only their war service, but their persistent hope in the face of discrimination:
She shut her eyes to past wrongs and present discomforts and future uncertainties. She stood large-hearted, strong-handed, clear-minded, splendidly capable, and did, not her bit, but her best, and the world is better for her work and her worth (397).
Crisis, May 1919

*Emmett J. Scott, Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, Homewood Press, 1919, p. 448. 
**“Race Prejudice and the War.” New York Tribune, Sunday, 18 Nov. 1917, p. 2.
***Scott, Official History, p. 451.  The memo was sent by Emmet J. Scott to Dean F.P. Keppel, Office of the Secretary of War, dated 28 Feb 1918. 
†Sandra L. West, “Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (Alice Ruth Moore), ” p. 93.  Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Infobase, 2003.
††Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Negro Women in War Work,” pp. 374-397. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.
†††Emmett J. Scott, “Did the Negro Soldier Get a Square Deal?” pp. 429-430. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Burning Beehives

Burning Beehives

Portrait of Edmond Rostand by Pascaud, 1901
In August of 1914, the Germany army invaded Belgium and pushed into France. Almost immediately there arose French reports of German war atrocities, including accounts of rapes, massacres, and the burning of villages. These were later published in Documents Relating to the War, authored by the French Commission to establish acts committed by the enemy in violation of the law of nations (1915).*  The book was translated and reprinted numerous times during the war, appearing in English in The New York Times Current History of the European War (1917).  In Documents, one eye-witness tells of a curé who was arrested in the village of Fraimbois.  Confronting German officers, the village priest asked why they had burned his beehives and received the reply, “What do you expect? It is war!”

Edmond Rostrand, best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac, shaped the story into a poem that merges history, fable, and patriotic political commentary.**  An excerpt of the poem appears below; it can be read in its entirety in French Poems of the Great War, translated by Ian Higgins.

Burning Beehives

How pleasing: straight away, they burned some beehives…
Image from film More than Honey
O bees, tumbling, buzzing gold in the blue air,
As long as you’re aloft they haven’t triumphed,
O last little glimmer from the golden age!

‘But why ever are you burning my bees?’
The curé of Fraimbois asked the German brute.
‘That’s war!’ replied the General. – Yes, war as waged
By the horde on the buzz and pride of freedom.
Why, then, did they burn this hive of straw?
Because the hive at work intoned a psalm
As it fashioned what resembled sunbeams.
And earlier, remember, on entering Brussels,
The Chiefs had issued orders to their thugs
To trample the flowers underfoot.
As janissaries† rush to please their vizier,
So the soldiers joyed to stamp down the flowers.
Fraimbois, France
That they should blithely now be burning beehives
Is simple logic: it is but one short step,
One goose-step, from trampled flowers to bees in flames.
How they flared and crackled in the blue air,
And dropped! A fine sight; and the perfumed wax
Streaming black! And then, burn a beehive,
And up in smoke go famous names as well—
Plato, Vergil, La Fontaine, Maeterlinck—
Alongside the bees, as if to fade away,
A further fading out of humanism
To mark the triumph of the feldgrau lout.

The bee is spirit visible in light,
A drop of honey risen on two wings!
How might it ever find forgiveness from
Such clods? The bee is instant choice, sureness
French vintage postcard 
Of touch and taste: briefly floating, exploring—
Then aim, effort, balance, judgement, skill!
And when the human mind in wonderment
Sees, deep in a hive, its own destiny
Mysteriously sketched out by pure instinct,
To serve the Hun it is disinclined! Rather
This sweet, free order than their Discipline!
Yes, hives murmur. – All murmuring will
At once be shriven, purged and burnt alive!

‘But why,’ the poor priest asked, ‘why burn my beehives?’
Pleasing, then, that to the bees’ good shepherd
The Burner of bees said ‘That’s war.’ –Their war, yes,
But what of ours?

            In those first, tragic days,
When our troops were moving north to Belgium,
It is told that French armoured cavalry
Rode through a Flemish village – I forget
The name – their horses festooned with roses,
French cavalry, Paris 1914
Singing, as they rode, the Marseillaise –
But through their teeth, mouths closed, simply humming;
And it was magnificent.  And this hum
Of Latin anger from across all those flowers,
Wordless, and gestureless, was the growl
Of mind and soul, it was conscience, and reason;
The sound of storm and oratory, pious,
Threatening, and with a fierce, golden
Calm.  Not a single mouth was seen to move,
As though it were the flowers themselves that hummed.
And those who heard it, eyes filled with tears, thought
To hear, in the reddening evening dust,
Some kind of strange Marseillaise hummed by bees…
Thus, with purity and purpose, did our men
Transmute their warlike anthem into a swarm’s hum,
As north they rode, prepared for ambush, prepared to die
For beehives and to save the honey of the world!
            --Edmond Rostand, trans. Ian Higgins

Opening with the bitter irony, the poem condemns the German troops for their rush to destroy life and beauty. In maliciously burning the bees, the invading army has killed the “last little glimmer from the golden age” and launched the world into the chaos and horror of modern, industrialized war.  

French postcard, © Library of International
Contemporary Documentation
Not only has Rostand associated bees with religious martyrs and the enchantment of the natural world (“the hive…intoned a psalm/ As it fashioned…sunbeams”), but bees are one of the oldest symbols of French royalty and power, dating from the Merovingian rulers of the 5th century and adopted by Napoleon as the emblem of his reign. Repeatedly, the poem links the industrious, selfless bees with France and its army: both bees and French troops hum with the “buzz and pride of freedom,” and both are associated with the democracy, culture, industriousness, and peace.

Rostand argues that to burn a hive is to annihilate the ideals expressed by philosophers and authors who wrote of the winged insects: bees settled on Plato’s lips when he was a child; Virgil describes his hopes for Rome’s political renewal in “The Bees”; La Fontaine’s fable “The Hornets and the Bees” praises the bees for their practical approach to conflict resolution, and Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee celebrates their “harmonious concord.”

In burning the hives, the Germans have shown themselves to be opposed to all that the bees represent. The poem depicts German troops as earth-bound clods and brutes who joyfully trample flowers and transform all they touch to ugliness. The grey-clad soldiers blithely watch as perfumed beeswax rises in black smoke and as the bees themselves, like a “drop of honey risen on two wings,” flare, crackle, and fall to the ground.  

Rostand’s poem does not object to the war.  Instead, it commends the poilu for their “purity and purpose.” As they hum the Marseillaise, their national anthem, the men of France are “prepared to die/ For beehives and to save the honey of the world.”†† 

*Documents relatifs á la guerre, by Commission instituée en vue de constater les actes commis par l’ennemi en violation du droit des gens.
**For other patriotic and nationalistic war poems, see “Hymn of Hate,” “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army,” “Going to the Front,” “A Litany in the Desert,” and “America at War.”
†Elite troops of the Ottoman Sultan -  his household bodyguards (dating from 14th century).
†† Katharine Tynan’s poem “Telling the Bees” is another poem that relates bees to the Great War.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Their only crime

Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible.  The black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience and for his tendency toward undue familiarity. The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has to repress them sternly.”
            —“Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops,” sent August 7, 1918 from Colonel J.L.A. Linard with the A.E.F. to the French Army. Later published by W.E.B. DuBois in the Crisis, May 1919, pp. 16-18.

Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.
Over 350,000 black Americans were inducted into the American Army during the First World War, but units were strictly segregated by race, and black soldiers were assigned to hard labor and low status jobs (such as the grave digging, exhumation, and reburial work of the war). Few black units saw combat; an exception were the units who were assigned to the French military, where they fought with bravery and distinction. In the American Army of the First World War, racism was not only accepted, but often enforced. 

James Seamon Cotter, Jr. has been described as a “forerunner of the African American cultural renaissance of the 1920s,”* and the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance notes that his poetry and one-act play On the Fields of France  provide an important contribution to First World War literature.  Cotter’s poem “O Little David, Play on Your Harp” uses a well-known African-American spiritual to frame the oppression and misery of war, genocide, and racism.  You can listen here to a 1919 recording of the song performed by Lt. Noble Sissle and Lt. James Reese Europe of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters.

O, Little David, Play on Your Harp

O, Little David, play on your harp,
That ivory harp with the golden strings
And sing as you did in Jewry Land,
Of the Prince of Peace and the God of Love
And the coming Christ Immanuel.

O, Little David, play on your harp.

A seething world is gone stark mad;
And is drunk with the blood,
Gorged with the flesh,
Blinded with the ashes
Of her millions of dead.
From out it all and over all
There stands, years old and fully grown,
A monster in the guise of man.
He is of war and not of war;
Born in peace,
Nurtured in arrogant pride and greed,
World-creature is he and native to no land.
And war itself is merciful
When measured by his deeds.
Beneath the Crescent
Lie a people maimed;
Their only sin—
That they worship God.
On Russia’s steppes
Is a race in tears;
Their one offense—
That they would be themselves.
On Flanders’ plains
Is a nation raped;
A bleeding gift
Of “Kultur’s” conquering creed.
Crisis, June 1918
And in every land
Are black folk scourged;
Their only crime—
That they dare be men.

O, Little David, play on your harp,
That ivory harp with the golden strings
And psalm anew your songs of Peace,
Of the soothing calm of a Brotherly Love,
And the saving grace of a Mighty God.
O, Little David, play on your harp.
            —Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.

The celebratory refrain of the Negro spiritual contrasts sharply with a “seething world” that has “gone stark mad.”** Spiraling out of control, the world at war is drunk on blood, sated by the decaying bodies of the dead, and blinded by the ashes of destruction. 

Yet bigger than the war and more terrible than even its slaughter, a monster “of war and not of war” towers over all. This fiend, born in peace, raised by pride, and fed by greed, is a citizen of every nation, and he wears a human disguise. In the Ottoman Empire (“beneath the Crescent”), he has directed the massacre of the Armenians; in Russia’s pogroms, he has murdered thousands of Jews; and he has brutally commanded German atrocities in occupied Belgium. Cotter’s poem unites these victims of deadly prejudice with blacks who are whipped and beaten “in every land”; their only crime is daring to believe themselves fully human. 

Many black Americans hoped the war that was to “make the world safe for democracy” would also address the racism that was prevalent in America. In “O Little David,” Cotter challenges his audience to acknowledge that the enemy within, the “monster in the guise of man,” is as terrible a foe as any to be encountered on the battlefields of Europe. 
*James Robert Payne, “Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford, 2001, p. 90.
**The subject of the song, however, is relevant to the poem’s message. David’s harp playing was commanded by King Saul, who employed the boy to soothe his mad rages (I Samuel 16), and the young shepherd shocked Israel’s army with his courage and skill in fighting the colossal Goliath (I Samuel 17). 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

War Song

La Guerre, Henri Rousseau (1894), Musee d'Orsay

And so, then, for all in time of war, here
are the cockerels, clamouring defiance,
and the vultures, ponderous with hate,
talons stained with the blood of memories.
            —epigraph from Granier’s Cockerels and Vultures, 1917

French artillery officer Albert-Paul Granier was born in the Atlantic coastal village of Le Croisic in September of 1888. He was raised in a home where he was surrounded by music; Gabriel Fauré was a family friend. Although Granier studied law and qualified as a solicitor, in his spare time he composed music and was an accomplished pianist.  In the years before the Great War, he was also a “Sunday poet,” having “enough leisure time for artistic activity.”*
Albert-Paul Granier

Joining the French army in August of 1914, Granier was assigned to the 116th Heavy Artillery regiment; in 1916 his unit was stationed at Verdun in support of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By 1917, Granier had volunteered and been reassigned as an aerial observer, accompanying pilots on reconnaissance missions in the Verdun sector.

Granier recorded his impressions of the war in startlingly modern poetry that has been compared to that of Apollinaire. His only book of poems, Les Coqs et les Vautours (translated as Cockerels and Vultures), was published in Paris in 1917.**

Even his earliest poems, written in 1914, evoke the surreal violence of war in a world gone mad (a video performance of the poem in French can be viewed here).

War Song

Dame Death is joyously dancing,
a drunken, hip-swinging jig,
never a word, just wriggling
and playfully juggling skulls
like so many knucklebones.
Dance of Death, Felicien Rops

Dame Death is glad, and very drunk—
for there’s blood in full flow out there,
a heavy red brookful in every ravine.

Accompanying her weird dancing
is the tom-tom of guns in the distance:
“Tom-tom-tom! tom-tom-tom! Come then, White Lady,
come dance to the sound of the drums!”

Dame Death’s getting drunker and splashing
her sweet little face with blood,
like a child who’s been eating the jam.

Dame Death is paddling in blood,
and slapping down into it with her long hands,
as though she were washing her shroud;
wallowing, and silently sniggering.

Dame Death is flushed, writhing, dancing
like a girl who’s had too much drink.

“Hey, Death, get your hopping in time
with the tom-tom of guns in the distance!”

                        The guns in the distance
quicken their murderous presto,
guns laughing together in rhythm;
the guns in the band force the tempo,
whipping her up for The Jubilation Ball:

“Spin on those dainty thin heels,
squirm the meat off those sinuous hips,
get waltzing and whirling, White Lady!
dancing and skipping! waving your arms!
Here’s blood, here’s blood!
And here’s some more, to keep you busy!
Come on now, drink up! totter and reel!
This is the start of the Orgy in Red!”

Dame Death is dancing, insanely drunk,
to the tom-tom of guns in the distance.
                        --1914, Albert-Paul Granier, translated by Ian Higgins

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Hartmann Schedel 1440-1514
Granier’s “Chanson de Guerre” is a highly unsettling portrayal of death as both a gleeful child and a drunken, dancing woman.  Death appears not as the Grim Reaper, but as a child whose “sweet little face” is smeared with blood as if it were jam.  Nightmarishly, this vision of Death playfully juggles skulls and blithely paddles in blood.  At the same time, Death appears as a highly sexualized woman, “flushed, writhing, dancing/ like a girl who’s had too much drink.” She wriggles her “sinuous hips” and welcomes “the Orgy in Red.”

What the child and the prostitute share is an eerie, inappropriate, unstoppable laughter. They thrill at the carnage and laugh at the slaughter; to Death, the war is a joyous event (the British trench poet Julian Grenfell writes quite differently about the “Joy of Battle” at which Death “moans and sings”). 

In Granier’s “War Song,” Death celebrates her addiction to bloodshed. She cannot get enough of her favorite brew, and there’s so very much of it – enough blood to wash in, to wallow in, and to guzzle from “the heavy red brookful” that fills every ravine.  Death rhapsodizes, “Here’s blood, here’s blood!/ And here’s some more, to keep you busy!”

French gunner, 1916
What is it that drives Death’s precarious and tottering dance on her “dainty thin heels”?  She wriggles and writhes to the hypnotic drumbeat of the guns that laugh and “quicken their murderous presto.” As a heavy artillery gunner, Granier would have been intimately acquainted with the rhythmic beat of shellfire as he and his unit tuned the music of their artillery batteries.

Granier’s “War Song” might seem to paint an exaggerated picture of death in the First World War, but the statistics are even more shocking. How much blood? How much death?  During the duration of the war, on average, nearly 900 French soldiers were killed every day; of the 8.4 million French soldiers who were mobilized, 1.3 million died and 4.2 million were wounded. Over 73% of the French troops who entered the war became casualties of the war.† 

Less than three weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday, on August 17, 1917 Albert-Paul Granier was killed while flying as an observer over the Verdun battlefieldHis plane was hit by a shell, and no trace of his body was ever found. He is honored in the Pantheon in Paris, his name appearing alongside those of 560 other French writers who died in the Great War.
*Jean Leclercq, “Albert-Paul Granier, the unknown soldier poet,” Le Mot Juste en Anglais, posted 5 April 2015.
**Despite receiving a commendation from the Académie française in 1918, the book was soon forgotten and only rediscovered in 2008 after a copy was found at a French flea market. Further discussion of Granier and his poetry can be read on this blog at the post “A good death.”
†The average number of French killed each day of the First World War is taken from “War Losses (France), 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. The statistics on French total casualties during the war are from C.N. Trueman, “First World War Casualties,” The History Learning Site, posted 17 April 2015.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lost at sea

RMS Alcantara, former ocean liner, sunk in combat 1916
While images of the First World War are inextricably linked to the trenches of the Western Front, over 44,000 British men lost their lives at sea, and an estimated 35,000 German sailors died in the war.* The war at sea was more important than most realize: Germany’s attempt to build a powerful navy and threaten Britain’s domination of the seas was a key factor leading to the outbreak of war, and Britain’s naval blockade of Germany was critical in ending the conflict.      

RMS Baltic, before conversion to military transport ship
Dreadnought battleships, developed at the start of the century, were equipped with guns that fired at ranges of nearly 20 miles, while submarines launched torpedo attacks with devastating results (the best known sinking was that of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, in which 1,198 passengers died).  But in the race for naval supremacy, many civilian ships, including luxury ocean liners, were also requisitioned and re-fitted for military service. The “Big Four” of the White Star Line (the RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic, and RMS Adriatic) –some of the world’s largest ships— all served in the British Navy in the First World War. 

Henry Smalley Sarson was born in London, but emigrated to Canada and was working as a farmer when war broke out in 1914.  On September 25, 1914, he enlisted in the army and pledged “to serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, and to be attached to any area of the service therin, for the term of one year, or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should that war last longer than one year.”** Sarson was wounded in 1916 while serving with the Canadian Field Ambulance; he published a small volume of poetry From Field and Hospital that same year.

The Armed Liner

The dull gray paint of war
Covering the shining brass and gleaming decks
That once re-echoed to the steps of youth.
That was before
The storms of destiny made ghastly wrecks
Of Peace, the Right and Truth.
Impromptu dances, colored lights and laughter,
Lovers watching the phosphorescent waves,
Now gaping guns, a whistling shell; and after
So many wandering graves.
                        —H. Smalley Sarson

Philip Genders, killed at Jutland
 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 
Those who lived during the Great War were gripped by a sense of the catastrophic changes it caused.  What once was bright and shining is now coated with the “dull gray paint of war.” Decks that previously echoed with the steps of spirited young men and women have been swamped by “the storms of destiny,” leaving in ruins the abstract ideals that had provided hope and stability. Gone are the luxury ocean liners, the leisurely lovers, and the light-hearted dancers; ugliness and impermanence now mark the world.† 

The final lines of the poem offer a bleak picture of the future: muzzles of the ship’s guns gape with an insatiable appetite for yet more blood and death, while the bodies of those who die at sea can find no final resting place. Their graves wander with the ocean currents, denying their loved ones the opportunity of choosing an inscription, making a visit, or marking the burial site.   

After the First World War, the British built memorials at Plymouth, Chatham, and Portsmouth for their sailors who have no known grave but the sea.  In 1936, Germany completed its World War I naval memorial at Laboe, but in 1952, the memorial’s purpose was expanded to “commemorate fallen sailors of all nations.” While the change was made due to political pressures following the Second World War, it is in keeping with George Bruce’s 1884 reflection on those who die at sea:

The sea is the largest cemetery, and its slumberers sleep without a monument. All other graveyards show symbols of distinction between great and small, rich and poor: but in the ocean cemetery, the king, the clown, the prince, and the peasant are alike undistinguishable.††

Portsmouth Naval Memorial 
Laboe Naval Memorial

*British naval casualties figures appear in the article published on Ancestry’s website, “Revealed: 1-in-3 British Naval Heroes Were Underage.” The figure for German naval deaths can be found in Alison Smale’s, “Militarism and Humiliation Cast Shadow on Germany,” published online by the New York Times, 26 June 2014.   
**Sarson’s attestation papers can be found at the Imperial War Museum’s website Lives of the First World War, Henry Smalley Sarson.”
†For other poems on ships and ghosts of the dead, see Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment” and John Allan Wyeth’s “The Transport.”
††George Bruce, Wrecks and reminiscences of St. Andrews Bay, John Leng & Company, 1884, p. 413.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Eating chip potatoes

British soldiers at the Somme, Oct. 1916 © IWM (Q 1580)

Historian Paul Fussell, writing in The Great War and Modern Memory, describes the growing sense contemporaries held that the Great War “might be endless”: 
One did not have to be a lunatic or a particularly despondent visionary to conceive quite seriously that the war would literally never end and would become the permanent condition of mankind. The stalemate and attrition would go on indefinitely, becoming, like the telephone and the internal combustion engine, a part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience.*

Bruce Bairnsfather:
"Well, Alfred, 'ow are the cakes?"
Yet while it seemed as if the war might last forever, those caught in its grip became increasingly aware of the evanescent quality of human life.  In her memoir Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain explains,
France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.** 

For some, fiercely living in the present meant extracting whatever small and simple pleasures might be available in the existing circumstances. William Kersley Holmes was a banker who joined the Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry regiment and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery.  Holmes published two volumes of poetry (Ballads of Field and Billet and More Ballads of Field and Billet) that capture this spirit of determined buoyancy. A reviewer for the Scotsman praised his work, writing, “It may seem a rather doubtful compliment to the verses in this readable book to say that they are pedestrian; but they do not attempt to soar high, to celebrate martial glory.” The Glasgow Herald said of Holmes’ poems,
They range from the grave to the humorous, from the realistic to the romantic, but something of the brightness of youth is in them all, something of that gallant gaiety which makes a jest of the discomforts of life, yet never thinks of life itself as a jest.† 
Holmes’ “The Soldier Mood” captures one such incident in which three friends eat and laugh together, “Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.”

The Soldier Mood

We were eating chip potatoes underneath the April stars
That glittered coldly and aloof from earth and earthly wars;
We were three good pals together, and the day’s hard work was done,
So we munched our chip potatoes, half for food and half for fun.

Half the world was war’s dominion, but the mutter of the strife
Had come to seem accustomed as the undertone of life;
We were fit and hard and happy, and the future was unknown,
The past—all put behind us; but the present was our own.

We were doing our plainest duty, meant to end what we’d begun;
Why worry for tomorrow till to-day’s big job was done?
So we walked and laughed together like three modern musketeers—
Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.

We were eating chip potatoes with our fingers, like a tramp,
And the unseen owls were hooting in the trees around the camp;
We were happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong;
So—to-morrow might be terror, but to-night could be a song!
                                                —W. Kersley Holmes

In Holmes' poem, the prolonged stalemate of trench warfare and the immensity of the conflict (involving half of the nations of the world) have so normalized violence and death that they have come to be accepted as “the normal undertone of life.”  With an unspoken understanding, the men realize that dwelling on memories of past battles or anticipating terrors of future attacks will lead to fearful paralysis; the only way forward is to claim the present as their own, without ceremony or posturing. The soldiers’ mood –“Happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong”—is not a philosophy born out of naïve idealism, but rather a means of coping with the ever-present terrors of the war.
In another poem “The Neutral,” Holmes acknowledges that the war has put at risk not only men’s lives, but their sense of themselves:
War, like a restless fever, haunts the air,
Changing the world we knew;
The men we are forget the men we were
In all we think and do.
Grasping at simple pleasures that were connected with their past lives—“eating chip potatoes”—gave soldiers a tangible way of preserving personal identities that many felt were slipping away with each day the war dragged on.††

*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 2000, page 71.  For more on the Never-Endians, see also this blog's post “The Other Side” (Alec Waugh). 
**Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Virago Press, 2004, pages 338-339.
†Both reviews are quoted in the Dollar Magazine, Vol XIV, No. 54, June 1915, pages 74-75 (the magazine was a publication of Dollar Academy, Holmes’ alma mater).
††Holmes’ poem “Singing ‘Tipperary’” also explores soldiers’ struggles to retain a sense of their individuality while caught up in the larger forces of the war.