Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Star Shell

The Star Shell, CRW Nevinson (Tate)
On September 25, 1915, the British at Loos launched their greatest offensive to date of the First World War.  By the time the battle had ended on October 15th, the British had lost over 50,000 men, an estimated 16,000 of them dead or missing.  The Germans called it Leichenfeld von Loos, or “the Corpse Field of Loos,” and a German regimental diary recorded the slaughter: 

Dense masses of the enemy, line after line, came into sight on the ridge, some of their officers even mounted on horseback, and advancing as if carrying out a field-day drill in peacetime.  Our artillery and machine guns riddled their ranks as they came on.  As they crossed the northern front of Bois Hugo, the machine guns positioned there caught them in the flank and whole battalions must have been utterly destroyed.[i]

That Astronomical Annoyance, the Star Shell
Bruce Bairnsfather
A British officer is reputed to have said, “From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.”[ii]

Patrick MacGill was wounded at Loos. An Irish soldier from Donegal, MacGill served with the London Irish Rifles at Loos and wrote of his experiences in The Great Push: an Episode of the Great War (1916).  His poem “The Star Shell” is included in his war novel/memoir.    

The Star Shell

A star-shell holds the sky beyond
Shell-shivered Loos, and drops
In million sparkles on a pond
That lies by Hulluch[iii] copse.

A moment's brightness in the sky,
To vanish at a breath,
And die away, as soldiers die
Upon the wastes of death. 
                        --Patrick MacGill

In MacGill’s poem, the burst of the star shell powerfully “holds the sky,” while the rural village of Loos is a small wreck, “shell-shivered" and splintered beneath the terrorizing grip of an artillery barrage. 

And yet there is beauty even in the ravages of war: the flash of the star shell explodes like fireworks over a pleasure garden, and sprays of light reflected in a local pond shine like diamonds in a world littered with death.

The fleeting burst of the artillery fire mirrors the life of the soldiers who watch the gleaming light in the night skies: both “vanish at a breath.” The glow of the star shell dies as do the men; both flash out in beauty and vibrancy, but in an instant, they are gone and the world is shuttered in darkness and cold.  The French poet Apollinaire wrote similarly of the short-lived “Flowers of the cannonade” in his poem “Post Card.”
Dead at Loos, from The Great War Blog

All too soon, the light of the star shell and the lives of the soldiers are snuffed out “upon the wastes of death” that overlook the field of corpses, in the land of “No Man” that lies between the lines of the mighty armies. 

MacGill also wrote of star shells in his novel/memoir, recounting a night before the battle during which he and his comrades watched a bombardment:

            A momentary lull followed, and a million sparks fluttered earthwards from a galaxy of searching star-shells. "Why are such beautiful lights used in the killing of men?" I asked myself. Above in the quiet the gods were meditating, then, losing patience, they again burst into irrevocable rage, seeking, as it seemed, some obscure and fierce retribution.
            The shells were loosened again; there was no escape from their frightful vitality, they crushed, burrowed, exterminated; obstacles were broken down, and men's lives were flicked out like flies off a window pane…..We crouched under the bomb-shelter, mute, pale, hesitating. Oh! the terrible anxiety of men who wait passively for something to take place and always fearing the worst!"[iv]

And what was the worst?  The death and waste of the Battle of Loos.  MacGill writes, “Men and pieces of men were lying all over the place. A leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed.”[v]  In the aftermath of the battle, “Nature, vast and terrible, stretched out on all sides; a red star-shell in the misty heavens looked like a lurid wound dripping with blood.”[vi]
Patrick MacGill, the Donegal County Museum

Wandering the battlefield in his search for the wounded and survivors, MacGill came upon a dead body: “The corpse was a mere condensation of shadows with a blurred though definite outline. It was a remainder and a reminder.”[vii]

The thousands of men who died too soon had been reduced to remainders, while at the same time they were enlarged to serve as reminders of the costs of war.  MacGill was one of the casualties of Loos; although wounded, his injury sent him home to “Blighty,” and he survived the war.

[i] Philip Warner, The Battle of Loos, 48. 
[ii] Rawlinson, quoted in Richard Holmes’ The Little Field-Marshal Sir John French.
[iii] Hulluch is a town near Loos, the scene of heavy fighting throughout the war.
[iv] Patrick MacGill, The Great Push, pages 33-34.
[v] Ibid, 77.
[vi] Ibid, 210. 
[vii] Ibid, 210-211.

No comments:

Post a Comment