Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Wrecks of No Man's Land

Zonnebeke by William Orpen
Some poems seem more like stories, and Arthur Graeme West’s “Night Patrol” reads almost as if it were an account found in a diary or memoir.  West, a man whose friends described him as “quiet, tranquil, and unassuming,” enlisted in January of 1915, arriving at France's Western Front in November of that year. 

In February of 1916, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “Also I had rather an exciting time myself with two other men on a patrol in the “no man’s land” between the lines.  A dangerous business, and most repulsive on account of the smells and appearance of the heaps of dead men that lie unburied there as they fell, on some attack or other, about four months ago.  I found myself much as I had expected in the face of these happenings: more interested than afraid, but more careful for my own life than anxious to approve any new martial ardour….For the Hun I feel nothing but a spirit of amiable fraternity that the poor man has to sit just like us and do all the horrible and useless things that we do, when he might be at home with his wife or his books” (Powell’s A Deep Cry). 

Here is his poetic description of that "exciting time":  

Night Patrol
France, March 1916
by Arthur Graeme West

Over the top! The wire’s thin here, unbarbed
Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough:
Full of old tins, though—“When you’re through, all three,
Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so,
Then straight for that new piece of German wire;
See if it’s thick, and listen for a while
For sounds of working; don’t run any risks;
About an hour; now, over!”
                                           And we placed
Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood
A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire,
Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn
The wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers,
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells
Shot fruitlessly—and everywhere the dead.
Only the dead were always present—present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air. They lay, all clothed,
Each in some new and piteous attitude
That we well marked to guide us back: as he,
Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed
His legs Crusader-wise: I smiled at that,
And thought on Elia and his Temple Church.
From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse,
Down in a hollow, huddled as in a bed,
That one of us put his hand on unawares.
Next was a bunch of half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three,
Who had no light to see by, save the flares.
On such a trail, so light, for ninety yards
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring
Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times.
A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat;
They shot a glare above us, when it fell
And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land,
We turned and crawled past the remembered dead:
Past him and him, and them and him, until,
For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent
Of the Crusader and slide past his legs,
And through the wire and home, and got our rum.

The poem--like the men it describes-- begins with a leap into action: “Over the top!”  In a pitch-black night, the soldiers are given orders to advance across No Man’s Land to scout the German trenches.  They stand, leap, creep, and worm their way forward, quickly encountering the litter of the battles that have been fought over this ground:  bandoliers (shoulder belts that carry bullets), bayonets, packs, guns -- and the bodies of the unburied dead who couldn’t be retrieved.  Abandoned equipment, abandoned men.  

In a ghastly twist on the fairy tale story of “Hansel and Gretel,” the men of the night patrol navigate not by tracking a trail of breadcrumbs, but by following a trail of corpses.  Closest to their own lines is the nicknamed “Crusader” who resembles a medieval tomb effigy as he lies on his back with his legs crossed.  The men on patrol next encounter a small man curled in a fetal position, “huddled as in a bed”; then the scattered remains of the six men blown to pieces, resembling an archipelago of decaying body parts; and finally the man who died almost at the parapet of the German trenches, whose body shelters those who have crept forward to spy.   

Contrasting with the “lumpish dead” who stink horribly, “infecting earth and air,” the German soldiers, unaware of the enemy night patrol, are alive with noise and movement. They shovel earth, talk, cough, spit, and fire their guns. 

The soldiers on patrol observe the inconsequential activities of the enemy, and then must make the hazardous return journey back to their own trenches, “Past him and him, and them and him” – using the dead as landmarks, the men who were comrades in arms before the war transformed them into signposts of No Man’s Land. 

Arthur Graeme West
The poem closes with a final ironic detail: having completed their mission, the soldiers receive their daily ration of rum, 1/16th of a pint, the army's answer to the horrors they have seen. 

During his time in the trenches, Arthur Graeme West grew increasingly disillusioned with the war, at one point considering desertion or suicide as preferable to returning to the Western Front.  In September of 1916, he wrote, “There was but one way for me, and I have seen it only when it was too late to pursue it.  To defy the whole system, to refuse to be an instrument of it – this I should have done.”  He was killed by a sniper’s bullet at morning “stand-to” on April 3, 1917. 



5 comments:

  1. While recalling in sound, smell and vision, just one of those scenes and experiences that etched themselves into his mind and imagination, A.G. West's words continue alienating and harrowing their reader one hundred years on, regardless of the time and circumstances from which they sprang.

    It is utterly inconceivable, but it must have been so very real, that the dead in the postures in which they are lying, peppering the No Man's Land all over, are serving as signposts to those who are barely alive still.

    All that useless wastage of life...

    ReplyDelete
  2. While recalling in sound, smell and vision, just one of those scenes and experiences that etched themselves into his mind and imagination, A.G. West's words continue alienating and harrowing their reader one hundred years on, regardless of the time and circumstances from which they sprang.

    It is utterly inconceivable, but it must have been so very real, that the dead in the postures in which they are lying, peppering the No Man's Land all over, are serving as signposts to those who are barely alive still.

    All that useless wastage of life...

    ReplyDelete
  3. The imagery here is intense and evocative... Arthur's words send a shiver down my spine as I read. We can but only begin to imagine how utterly awful this whole war must've been, for those who experienced it. I also liked the line in your commentary, Connie, "...using the dead as landmarks, the men who were comrades in arms before the war transformed them into signposts of No Man’s Land." It's just inconceivable...

    Leighton (Wiltshire at War)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Inconceivable - and yet there it is, preserved in a poem that is so powerful that, as you said, Leighton, it gives one shivers. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Delete