Friday, July 8, 2016

After the Offensive

Theipval 1917, William Orpen
©Imperial War Museum ART2377
War statistics can seem numbingly abstract: what does it mean that an estimated thirty-five million people were killed or wounded in the First World War?  In the conflict that lasted four years and three months, 230 soldiers died every hour that the war continued, and one out of every three British soldiers who was mobilized was a casualty of the war.*

The Battle of the Somme lasted for 4 months and 18 days, from July 1, 1916 – November 18, 1916.  During that time, the British Army lost 481,842 men, while French casualties numbered over 250,000 and German over 235,000.  The first day of the Somme offensive was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army: British troops suffered 57,470 casualties, and 19,240 British men died.

What was it like to survive the Somme? How did men at the Front make sense of the staggering numbers of dead and wounded?  Theodore van Beek was a junior artillery officer with the Royal Artists; his poem “After the Offensive” expresses the shock and loss of those who are left to soldier on. 

After the Offensive
We Are Making a New World, Paul Nash
©Imperial War Museum ART1146

This is the end of it, this the cold silence
Succeeding the violence
That rioted here.
This is the end of it  – grim and austere.

This is the end of it – where the tide spread,
Runnels of blood
Debris of dead;
This is the end of it:  ebb follows flood.

Waves of strong men
That will not surge again,
Scattered and riven
You like, and you rot;
What have you not given?
And what – have you got?
                        Theodore H. van Beek

After the terrific noise of the bombardment have ceased, after the shrill whistles signaling the order to attack have sounded, after the rattle of machine gun fire has finally ended– there remains only grim silence.  The spare three-word lines and clipped, emotionless description reflect a world that has been stripped of patriotic rhetoric and glory.  The cold of the silence mirrors the chilled, lifeless bodies strewn across the fields. 

Like a wave that has crashed against the shore at its high mark, the men also have surged forward without effect and are forced to retreat after dissipating their energy. The imagery evokes Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”:  the "waves of strong men" recall Arnold's waves and the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” as they sound a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” and faith retreats down “the naked shingles of the world.” 

Perhaps most poignantly, the last stanza of van Beek's poem emphasizes the way in which the dead men are scattered, violently torn both from life and from their comrades. Survivors must live with the knowledge that the men they served with and loved must be left to rot, many without known graves.

The poem doesn’t offer comforting platitudes, but instead concludes with rhetorical questions: could anyone have done any more?  And what was the value of an attack in which so much was given – and so very little was “got”?

Given the poem’s strong anti-war sentiment and its challenge to military authority, it is not surprising that “After the Offensive” was not published until well after the war had ended (it appeared in April of 1919 in the English Republic). However, at some point during the war, van Beek, attired in his military uniform, stood in London and publicly recited his anti-war poetry.  For this act, he was “severely reprimanded.”** His public reading of the poem was another kind of heroic offensive.
 
Percy Smith, Death Marches
*Statistics are taken from Scott Addington’s 2014 book, The Great War 100: The First World War in Infographics. 
**From “Biographical Notes” in Dominic Hibberd and John Onions' The Winter of the World (2008).  

4 comments:

  1. How simple, these words. How universal, the message expressed by one who was there. But how saddening, as war always seems to be.

    Is it any wonder, Connie, that the 'pick of the basket' filled with war poems continue to speak out for humanity and togetherness with the same intensity as they did then?

    In my perception, Van Beek, whose name has this unusual Flemish (or Dutch?) ring about it, ranks among the best of war poets. His message is not in any way ephemeral; it is, I feel, of a recognizability anyone can share.

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  2. I couldn't agree more, Chris. It's a beautiful lost poem that deserves a wider readership.

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  3. very many thanks for this Connie - i am terribly badly read in poetry - so I read all of this with great interest

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  4. Thanks, Ned -- I don't think poems judge their readers, but are simply grateful to be heard. :) Thanks for being a willing, good listener.

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