Friday, April 21, 2017

Only a cog

British munitions factory, Chilwell
It is easy to forget the sheer scale of the Great War. The numbers tell the tale: over 32 million artillery shells were fired during the battle of Verdun; over 3,000 artillery guns were used by the Allies during the Third Battle of Ypres; during the battle of High Wood on August 24, 1916, it is estimated that 10 British machine guns fired over 1 million rounds in 12 hours.  The human toll was also staggering: over 35 million were killed or wounded, and on average, 230 soldiers died each hour of every day during a conflict that lasted over four years.*

Men were dwarfed by the scale of a war such as the world had never seen before. Gilbert Frankau’s poem “Ammunition Column” considers one man’s place in a modern, industrial war.

Ammunition Column

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a link of an endless chain:
And the rounds are drawn, and the rounds are fired, and the empties return again;
Railroad, lorry, and limber; battery, column, and park;
To the shelf where the set fuse waits the breech, from the quay where the shells embark.
We have watered and fed, and eaten our beef; the long dull day drags by.
As I sit here watching our “Archibalds”** strafing an empty sky;
Puff and flash on the far-off blue round the speck one guesses the plane—

Smoke and spark of the gun-machine that is fed by the endless chain.
The Great Black Cloud (detail), by Kerr Eby 

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a little link in the chain,
Waiting a word from the wagon-lines that the guns are hungry again:—

Column-wagon to battery-wagon, and battery-wagon to gun;
To the loader kneeling 'twixt trail and wheel from the shops where the steam-lathes run.
There's a lone mule braying against the line where the mud cakes fetlock-deep!
There's a lone soul humming a hint of a song in the barn where the drivers sleep;
And I hear the pash of the orderly's horse as he canters him down the lane—

Another cog in the gun-machine, a link in the selfsame chain.

I am only a cog in a giant machine, but a vital link in the chain;
And the Captain has sent from the wagon-line to fill his wagons again;—

From wagon-limber to gunpit dump; from loader's forearm at breech,
To the working-party that melts away when the shrapnel bullets screech.

So the restless section pulls out once more in column of route from the right,
At the tail of a blood-red afternoon; so the flux of another night
Bears back the wagons we fill at dawn to the sleeping column again . . .
Cog on cog in the gun-machine, link on link in the chain!

In Frankau’s poem, the war has taken on a monstrous life of its own: the guns are insatiably hungry and must be fed. The poem’s regular meter sounds like a drumbeat, signaling the inevitability of the conflict’s relentless advance.
Men are reduced to machine parts as they work to satisfy the appetite of the war and its endless demand for ammunition. Everything and everyone appears small and subservient to the Great War.  The mule, the horse, the lone soul humming song: all are merely links and cogs in the chain of mechanized killing.  The grim irony is that in stoking the engines of war and prolonging its life, the men ensure that the killing will continue.  War feeds on human lives. 

Gilbert Frankau joined the British Army shortly after the war began in 1914 and was transferred to the Royal Field artillery in early 1915.  He fought at Loos, Ypres, and the Somme, but left the army “on account of ill-health contracted on active service” in February of 1918.†

Frankau is sometimes omitted from collections of war poetry for being “politically dubious.” WWI scholar Tim Kendall notes that the writer “hated the Germans with an intensity matched only by his master, Rudyard Kipling.”††  And yet Ferenc Békássy, a Hungarian soldier fighting for Germany’s ally, shared Frankau’s sense of the way in which the war was making all men into replaceable parts. In his poem “1914,” Békássy also protested “that he was not a unit, a pawn whose place can be filled.”  
*Scott Addington, The Great War 100, The History Press, 2014.
**Anti-aircraft fire. This link explains that the term likely originated from a music hall song. 
London Gazette, 19 February 1918. 
††Tim Kendall, “Gilbert Frankau” on the blog War Poetry. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

A good death

What is a good death? For soldiers in the First World War – for soldiers in any war -- the thought is never far away.  They have seen instant death as men disappear into a mist of blood at the burst of an artillery shell; they have witnessed men burned by flame, buried in underground tunnels, shot through the bowels, overcome by poisonous gas. 

Albert-Paul Granier was a French infantry soldier and heavy artillery gunner at Verdun and the Somme. His poem “La Fièvre” (translated as “Fever” by Ian Higgins) is an account of one man’s delirious conversation with his own heart as he imagines his death. 


“Heartbeat, heartbeat, why the rush?
Whither the headlong dash,
where are you taking me,
where is this punishing map gallop
dragging my disheveled life?”

My heart is racing off, up through the clouds,
over the mountains, across the plains –
not Pécopin* himself, on Satan’s thoroughbred,
flew as swift through all those haunted years
as me, on this runaway heart
careering like a wild stallion.

            “Where are you rushing me, heart?”
            “To a white hospital, in a quiet garden,
women softly rustling through the wards,
and, at nightfall, distant tranquil bells
murmuring a call to evensong;
to a white hospital, and a peaceful death,
a woman’s white hand on your pale brow,
and precious words of comfort on her lips.”
            “No, rampaging heart! No!”

French dead at Verdun
            “Fetch my horse!
-- Sooner the fierce alarm-cry of guns
announcing torrents of thunder-strikes;
and sooner than the nurses’ soft footsteps,
give me merciless flying splintered steel
whizzing invisible just above our heads!

No, heart…
                        Let me die beside rearing guns,
in the mad triumph of this great Epic,
die lying here, in the mud and the blood,
my eyes filled with sky, my heart with stars,
here, soothed by the moon’s affectionate caress,
with a great chunk of steel in my chest!
                        --Albert-Paul Granier, translated by Ian Higgins

Listening to the soldier’s inner dialogue, we experience the terror of his madly pounding heart. His life, already dirty and disordered, is recklessly dragged forward by the fevered racing of his pulse.  Like a powerless rider on a dangerous runaway horse, the man realizes he has lost all control of his future: “where are you taking me?” he asks the wild stallion that beats ferociously in his chest.

In his feverish imagination, his heart answers his query: his journey’s end will be a place of quiet and tranquility, of white stillness and calm. His runaway heart envisions the soldier’s “peaceful death” in a hospital, blessed by the comforting touch of a woman’s hand as he quietly breathes his last. 

And then the nightmare vision takes an unexpected turn: the soldier spurns the headlong gallop towards tranquility, shouting, “No, rampaging heart! No!” Instead, he recklessly embraces the messiness of death in the front lines of battle.  It is here, amid the mud, blood, and deafening roar of the guns, where the chaos of the Great War is transformed into the mad tragedy of “this great Epic.”  There is an honesty in this death of mutilation and gore – “with a great chunk of steel in my chest.” As unnatural as these battle deaths are, it is better that they not be sanitized. The soldier dies alone, but in his last moments, he is deeply connected to the natural world, his eyes “filled with sky,” his “heart with stars.” 

In December of 1916, Albert-Paul Granier volunteered for the air service as a reconnaissance pilot. His book of poems Les Coqs et les Vautours was published in Paris in 1917; he was killed on August 17, 1917 when his plane was shot down over Verdun. He has no known grave.

Forgotten for nearly 90 years, his poems were discovered in 2008 at a rummage sale in Brittany. The volume has been masterfully translated into English by Ian Higgins in Cockerels and Vultures (2013, Saxon books). In his Foreword to the book, Higgins attributes the power of Granier’s poetry to its “paradoxical child-like vulnerability and gritty toughness of a generous mind attempting to encompass and express the unimagined new sorts of nightmare that the war was flinging at ordinary people day by day” (9).

* Pécopin, a character in the Victor Hugo novel The Story of the Bold Pécopin, makes a deal with the Devil in hopes of returning to his lover.  The Devil keeps Pécopin from his lover for one-hundred years, compelling him to race around the world on a ghostly horse.   

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Day 1917

Church Service before Battle (postcard, WWI)
Captain John Eugene Crombie of the 4th Battalion Gordon Highlanders wrote what was most likely his last poem on April 8th, Easter Sunday of 1917. It was the eve of the battle of Arras.  Crombie was killed two weeks later on April 23, 1917.  He was 20 years old.

Easter Day, 1917 -- The Eve of Battle
John Eugene Crombie

I rose and watched the eternal giant of fire
Renew his struggle with the grey monk Dawn,
Slowly, supreme, though broadening streaks of blood
Besmirch the threadbare cloak, and pour his flood
Of life and strength on our yet sleeping choir,
As I went out to church on Easter morn.

Returning with the song of birds and men
Acclaiming victory of throbbing life,
I saw the fairies of the morning shower
Giving to drink each waking blade and flower,
I saw the new world take Communion then --
And now 'tis night and we return to strife.

The bloody struggle of dawn, the sun's flood of light that pours strength on the soldiers, the joined songs of birds and men, and the fairies of the dew that bathe grass and flowers with water: the poem's images juxtapose blood and war with life and song.

He is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  The joyful chorus of Easter morning gives way to the preparations for battle on Easter eve: "And now 'tis night and we return to strife." On Easter Monday, the battle of Arras begun: by the time it ended on May 16, 1917, over 300,000 men were missed, wounded, or dead.

A month earlier, Crombie had written to his mother, "if we hate all that is Prussian, we shall become all that we hate....It is an extraordinary tangle when you think of it. And I am sorry to be pessimistic, but I doubt if it will have helped us to find God. Among the millions actually fighting it seems only to have increased the drunkenness and vice -- perhaps some among those at home, anxious for dear ones fighting, may have learnt to rely on Him.  It is wonderful to think of Peace, and all this ghastliness ended."*

The inscription Crombie's mother chose for her son's headstone reads, From the Ground There Blossoms Red, Life That Shall Endless Be.  

Burial place of J.E. Crombie,
Duisans British Cemetery, photo by Andy Bailey (Flickr)
*Quoted in Anne Powell's A Deep Cry, pp. 239 - 240.