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.
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*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (2000), p. 60.

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