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.

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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tanks: a regiment of monsters


British Mark 1 Tank
“Never since the dawn of time had there been such a perversion of knowledge to criminal purposes; never had science contributed such a deadly toll to the fanatic and criminal intentions of a war-crazed class.”
--Francis March, History of the World War, 1919 

On September 15, 1916, the British Army recorded the first use in battle of a newly developed weapon: the tank.  Originally known as a land battleship, the term tank was adopted to preserve secrecy during the development of the armored vehicles (factory workers had noted their resemblance to steel water tanks). 

Writing shortly after the war’s end in 1919, American historian Francis March explained, “Originally this was a caterpillar tractor invented in America and adopted in England.  At first these were of two varieties, the male, carrying heavy guns only, and the females, equipped with machine guns…. All the tanks were heavily armored and had as their motto the significant words “Treat ‘Em Rough” (217).

With the introduction of poison gas, gas masks, and heavy artillery shells that obliterated forests and churned the earth, the Western Front had already assumed the appearance of a nightmare. Tanks added another surreal beast to the landscape.  While serving with the French army at the Somme, Anglo-American nurse Mary Borden described the new “regiment of monsters.”

The Hill

From the top of the hill I looked down on the beautiful, the gorgeous, the super-human and monstrous landscape of the superb exulting war.
There were no trees anywhere, nor any grasses or green thickets, nor any birds singing, nor any whisper or flutter of any little busy creatures.
There was no shelter for field mice or rabbits, squirrels or men.
The earth was naked and on its naked body crawled things of iron.
It was evening. The long valley was bathed in blue shadow and through the shadow, as if swimming, I saw the iron armies moving.
And iron rivers poured through the wilderness that was peopled with a phantom iron host.
Lights gleamed down there, a thousand machine eyes winked.
The sun was setting, gilding the smooth crests of the surging hills. The red tents clustering on their naked yellow sides were like scarlet flowers burning in a shining desert of hills.
Against the sunset, along the sharp edge of a hill, a strange regiment was moving in single file, a regiment of monsters.
They moved slowly along on their stomachs,
Dragging themselves forward by their ears.
Their great encircling ears moved round and round like wheels.
They were big and very heavy and heavily armoured.
Obscene crabs, armoured toads, big as houses,
They moved slowly forward, crushing under their bellies whatever stood in their way.
A flock of aeroplanes was flying home, a flight of wild ducks with iron wings.
They passed over the monstrous regiment with a roar and disappeared.
I looked down, searching for a familiar thing, a leaf, a tuft of grass, a caterpillar; but the ground dropped away in darkness before my feet, that were planted on a heap of stones.
A path, the old deserted way of cattle, showed below beyond the gaping caverns of abandoned dug-outs, where men had once lived underground.  And along the path a German prisoner was stumbling, driven by a black man on a horse.
The black man wore a turban, and he drove the prisoner before him as one drives an animal to market.
These three—the prisoner, the black man and the horse—seemed to have wandered into the landscape by mistake. They were the only creatures of their kind anywhere.
Where had they come from and where were they going in that wilderness of iron with night falling?
The German stumbled on heavily beneath the nose of his captor’s horse. I could see the pallid disc of his face thrust forward, and the exhausted lurching of his clumsy body.
He did not look to the right or left, but watching him I saw him trip over a battered iron helmet and an old boot that lay in his way.
Two wooden crosses showed just ahead of him, sticking out of the rough ground.
The three passed in silence.
They passed like ghosts into the deepening shadow of the valley, where the panorama of invisible phantom armies moved, as if swimming.
And as I watched I heard the faint music of bagpipes, and thought that I heard the sound of invisible men marching.
The crests of the naked hills were still touched with gold.
Above the winking eyes of the prodigious war the fragile crescent of the moon floated serene in the perfect sky.
                        --Mary Borden

The scene Borden describes resembles one of the terrifying medieval visions painted by Hieronymus Bosch.  In Borden's poem, across the naked body of the earth crawl “things of iron.” The armored tanks are unnatural creatures that lurch forward like “obscene crabs” or “armoured toads, big as houses,” and they mercilessly crush “under their bellies” whatever stands in their path.

Hieronymous Bosch, Hell
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights
The machines appear more alive than the three living creatures, “the prisoner, the black man, and the horse,” who seem to have unwittingly stumbled into this unimaginable landscape of war. This solitary group passes “like ghosts” into the darkening twilight and joins the “invisible phantom armies,” the hosts of men who are marching forward to face death or who are returning from the front-line trenches numb and exhausted by the horrors they have witnessed.

Men are reduced to phantoms and natural life has disappeared: not a leaf, tuft of grass, or caterpillar remains on the battlefield, only heaps of stones and wooden crosses that mark the graves of the dead.

The industrialized war has taken on a mechanized life of its own, its terrors worse than anything science fiction could imagine.  It is a “superb, exulting war” in which airplanes soar like “wild ducks with iron wings,” and “a thousand machine eyes" wink as the tanks blankly rumble forward, emotionless and cruel. 


Mary Borden
Mary Borden’s poem “The Hill” appeared in her book of sketches and poems The Forbidden Zone.  In the preface to the book Borden wrote, “The sketches and poems were written between 1914 and 1918, during four years of hospital work with the French Army….I have dared to dedicate these pages to the Poilus who passed through our hands during the war, because I believe they would recognize the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures.  But the book is not meant for them.  They know, not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written.