Monday, May 22, 2017

Maker of Dreams

Dreamers were perhaps more common in the trenches of the Great War than has been previously acknowledged.  Imaginative soldiers “seized a star-beam” and climbed out of the trenches to join “star and bird and wind and rain” (see “Bivouacs” by Gilbert Waterhouse) or mentally removed themselves from the unspeakable horrors of the front lines:
            "Over!  How the mud sucks!  Vomits red the barrage.
            But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs."
                       -- Going Over” by Charles G.D. Roberts

William Oliphant Down was a West Country man, born in Somerset and raised in Dorset. Before the war, he had achieved recognition for a play "as iridescent as a soap bubble," the 1911 one-act fantasy The Maker of Dreams, which asserted that “the greatest thing that dreams are made of is love.”*

Caught up in the patriotic fervor of 1914, Down volunteered and was commissioned as an officer in the British infantry, first joining the 15th Royal Hussars, then the Royal Berkshire’s 1st/4th Battalion. Imagination served him well – or he put it aside – in daring action at the Somme near Pozieres in July of 1916.  He was awarded the Military Cross, the British award recognizing “acts of exemplary gallantry,” for leading a night patrol mission and subsequently commanding an attack during which he “reached the heavily-wired German second line, which ran north and south through the outskirts of Pozières, but was forced back. Returning with about 20 men from all three Companies he barricaded and secured Point 81, after killing 11 Germans in hand-to-hand fighting and capturing 2.”**

While rotating in and out of the front lines of battle, Down continued writing plays and poetry.  Three of his trench poems are parodies, reshaping popular songs and poems. In “Picardy Parodies No. 2,” he turns his wry humor to reshaping W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Down’s poem satirizes the loss of individual freedom and volition in war. 

Picardy Parodies No. 2 (W.B. Y..ts)

I will arise and go not, and go to Picardy
Lough Gill and Lake Isle of Innisfree, vintage postcard
And a new trench-line hold there, of clay and shell-holes made,
No dug-outs shall I have there, nor a hive for the Lewis G.,
But live on top in the b. loud glade. 

And I may cease to be there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the mouth of the Minnie to where the sentry sings;
There noon is high explosive, and night a gunfire glow,
And evening full of torpedoes’ wings.

I will arise and go now, though always night and day
I’ll feel dark waters lapping with low sounds by the store,
Where all our bombs grow rusty and countless S.A.A.;
I’ll feel it in my trench-feet sore.
            --William Oliphant Down

In Yeat’s original poem (which can be read here), the speaker rises and retreats to the idyllic charms of an Irish lake, where he builds a small cabin, plants beans, tends bees, and finds peace “alone in the bee-loud glade.” The poem describes the simple beauties of an island sanctuary: the morning songs of crickets, the purple glow of noon, the evening skies full of birds in flight, and the soft glimmer of midnight. 

After the Battle, Paul Nash (1918)
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2706)
In Down’s parody of Yeats' poem, the speaker rises, but is unable to go anywhere. In Picardy, men dwell in a state of paralysis, and the stagnation and mud cannot be escaped. Soldiers live and work in water-logged trenches and struggle against the corrosive damp that attacks everything from their Lewis machine guns to the store of bombs and small arms ammunition (S.A.A.).  In early July of 1916, the Berkshire Regiment’s War Diary reported, “The trenches were in a very bad condition, full of water and mud…the water in many places was waist deep.” Down's parody transforms the gently lapping lake waves of Lough Gill to dark, fetid pools that rot even the feet of the soldiers. 

The soundscape of the two poems is also sharply different: in Picardy, the silence of nature has been invaded by artillery blasts, the rattle of gunfire, and the shouts of a sentry as incoming “Minnies” fall on the trenches. The effects of the Minenwerfer, a German short-range artillery trench mortar, are described in the 1918 book Lingo of No Man’s Land: “The mortars throw a shell one thousand one hundred forty feet away, and even though no fragments touch him, the concussion is so great that a man’s insides burst like a kernel of popcorn and death is usually instantaneous.”†  

Night and day are undifferentiated in this world of madness and mud. The only peace to be found in Picardy “comes dropping slow,” as the only escape is death.

With no end to the war in sight, men were forced to adapt to nearly unendurable conditions of life in the trenches.  Writing parodies and reshaping familiar songs and poems may have provided some semblance of autonomy and control in a world that offered very little of either.

William Oliphant Down died of wounds and escaped his war on May 23, 1917.  He was most likely shot by enemy machine gun fire on the night of May 22nd as his unit was relieving the Glosters near Demicourt, France. Harold Veasey, in the Foreword to Down’s posthumously published book of poems notes, “His was a nature that abhorred war and its attendant horrors; it is, therefore, remarkable that this dreamer and idealist should have developed into such a very gallant and capable soldier.”††

Memorial at St. Mary's, Gillingham
Photo by Mr. C.E. Moreton

*“The Maker of Dreams: Some Press Opinions” from George Otis, The Stupid Witness and “Lecture Given on “Maker of Dreams,” The Columbia Spectator, 27 March 1915.
Lingo of No Man’s Land by Sergt. Lorenzo N. Smith, a soldier who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 36.
††Poems by Oliphant Down, 1921.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Song of the Ambulance Train

A Red Cross Train, France by Harold Septimus Power, ©IWM Art.1031
In addition to the nine million soldiers who died in the First World War, over twenty million men were wounded. It’s difficult to fully imagine the complex challenges involved in transporting men who had suffered the effects of artillery shelling, grenade explosions, machine-gun fire, gas attacks, frostbite, and shell shock to sites where they could receive medical care. 

The wounded either crawled or were carried behind the lines by stretcher bearers or comrades-in-arms. Taken to an advanced dressing station or poste de secours, those fortunate enough to survive were then driven by ambulances to casualty clearing stations. From there, the most common means of transporting the wounded was the ambulance train. Stretching for as long as one-third of a mile, a typical ambulance train was equipped with a kitchen, rows of bunks for the most seriously wounded, carriages with seats for injured who could sit upright, an operating and pharmaceutical carriage, and housing quarters for the orderlies, nurses, and doctors.   

The diary of a nurse assigned to a First World War ambulance train describes a typical scene:

We had 368; a good 200 were dangerously and seriously wounded, perhaps more; and the sitting-up cases were bad enough…. nearly all the men had more than one wound—some had ten; one man with a huge compound fracture above the elbow had tied on a bit of string with a bullet in it as a tourniquet above the wound himself….They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget. We were full up by about 2 a.m., and then were delayed by a collision up the line, which was blocked by dead horses as a result. All night and without a break till we got back to Boulogne at 4 p.m. next day (yesterday) we grappled with them….The head cases were delirious, and trying to get out of the window, and we were giving strychnine and morphia all round. Two were put off dying at St Omer, but we kept the rest alive to Boulogne.
                        -- Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, 24 October 1914  
                           Anonymous (thought to have been written by Kate Luard)

On July 1, 1916, as British troops in France were suffering tremendous casualties on the first day of the battle of the Somme, twenty-year-old Carola Oman joined the British Red Cross as a nurse without pay and served until April of 1919.  She dedicated her small book of poetry, The Menin Road and Other Poems (1919), to four of her friends who were also volunteer nurses tending the never-ending parade of dying and wounded men. Oman's poem “Unloading Ambulance Train” recreates a common scene of melancholy with small, vivid details. 

Unloading Ambulance Train

Into the siding very wearily
She comes again:
Singing her endless song so drearily,
The midnight winds sink down to drift the rain.

So she comes home once more.

Is it an ancient chanty
Won from some classic shore?
The stretcher-bearers stand
Two on either hand.
They bend and lift and raise
Where the doors open wide
With yellow light ablaze.
Into the dark outside
Each stretcher passes.  Here
(As if each on his bier
(With sorrow they were bringing)
Is peace, and a low singing.
The ambulances load,
Move on and take the road.
Under the stars alone
Each stretcher passes out.
And the ambulances’ moan
And the checker’s distant shout
All round to the old sound
Of the lost chanty singing.
And the dark seamen swinging.
Far off some classic shore . . .

So she comes home once more.
            Carola Oman, Wimereux, Sept. 1918

Underneath the cries of pain, the shouts of the railway inspector, and the beat of the rain, an ancient song can be heard. It rings in the screeching of the train as she pulls into the berth where she will unload her cargo of suffering.  Its endless tune of dreary loss and struggle have accompanied the homecoming of the wounded since Odysseus fought in the Trojan War.

Carola Oman
photo courtesy Charlotte Zeepvat
There is a mindless rhythm to the repetitive bending and lifting of the stretcher bearers, the repeated comings and goings of the ambulances. Sorrow mingles with peace as the procession of broken men on their stretchers resembles the dead carried on their funeral biers. It has all happened before; it will all happen again as each wounded man passes “Into the dark outside.”

The poem describes a home-coming of sorts, but as Siegfried Sassoon explains in his poem “They,” “When the boys come back / They will not be the same.” As the ambulance train is unloaded in the bleakness of midnight wind and drifting rain, the flickering light illuminates the tragedy of men who will likely bear the scars of the Great War for the rest of their lives.