Monday, August 24, 2020

Peasant and King


Royal Irish Rifle Troops at the Somme, July 1, 1916

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
                        —Shakespeare’s Henry V

Kings, emperors, industrialists and aristocrats: the wealthy and powerful have always needed the poor to fight in their wars and have promised rewards and honors for that service. In October of 1914,  American poet Christopher Morley wrote of the disparity between rich and poor, starkly contrasting the burdens each were expected to shoulder in the First World War.

Peasant and King
What the Peasants of Europe are Thinking
 
Belgium refugees
You who put faith in your banks and brigades,
      Drank and ate largely, slept easy at night,
Hoarded your lyddite and polished the blades,
      Let down upon us this blistering blight—
         You who played grandly the easiest game,
         Now can you shoulder the weight of the same?
            Say, can you fight?

Here is the tragedy: losing or winning
      Who profits a copper? Who garners the fruit?
From bloodiest ending to futile beginning
      Ours is the blood, and the sorrow to boot.
         Muster your music, flutter your flags,
         Ours are the hunger, the wounds, and the rags.
            Say, can you shoot?

Down in the muck and despair of the trenches
Tsar and Russian troops
      Comes not the moment of bitterest need;
Over the sweat and the groans and the stenches
      There is a joy in the valorous deed—
         But, lying wounded, what one forgets
         You and your ribbons and d——d epaulettes—
            Say do you bleed?

This is your game: it was none of our choosing—
      We are the pawns with whom you have played.
Yours is the winning and ours is the losing,
      But, when the penalties have to be paid,
         We who are left, and our womenfolk, too,
         Rulers of Europe, will settle with you—
            You, and your trade.
                        October, 1914.
                        —Christopher Morley

The poem appeared in Morley’s Songs for a Little House (1917). Similar sentiments are voiced in Siegfried Sassoon’s “They” and Grace Isabel Colbron’s “The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel.”
                       
Christopher Morley
Morley was one of the most prolific writers of the early twentieth-century, author of more than 100 novels, essay collections, and poetry volumes. He was perhaps best known for his 1939 novel Kitty Foyle, which was made into a popular film. When Morley died in 1957, his obituary in the New York Times recalled that he was “Known for his whimsy—a word he loathed to hear in reference to his works” and that he “preferred to regard himself as a poet above all else.”*

Several years before his death, Morley offered this advice: “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.**
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* “Christopher Morley, Author, 66, Is Dead,” New York Times, 29 March 1957.
** Christopther Morley, “Brief Case; or, Every Man His Own Bartlett,” The Saturday Review of Literature,  6 Nov. 1948, p. 20. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Grey Knitting

First World War sheet music

“In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae in May of 1915, is perhaps the best known Canadian poem of the war. But Katherine Hale’s “Grey Knitting,” published in December of 1914, was enormously popular during the war and in the years immediately following. In less than six weeks, Grey Knitting and Other Poems ran into four editions of a thousand copies each; an American journalist wrote, “Katherine Hale has established herself as a favourite with American editors. . . . ‘Grey Knitting’ is going the rounds of the newspapers on this side of the line,” and the poem was included in the 1921 Standard Canadian Reciter: A Book of the Best Readings and Recitations from Canadian Literature.*

In 1917, Lilian Whiting in Canada, the Spellbinder wrote, “Perhaps no poem of the war has more closely touched the universal heart than has ‘Katherine Hale’s’ poem, so intense in its restrained power.”** Today, Hale’s war poetry is dismissed as “sentimental and patriotic,” while “Grey Knitting” has been described as “a disturbing misrecognition of institutionalised violence: it mistakes suffering for gaiety and finds in bloodshed a transcendence that discredits Hale as a critical commentator on war.***


Grey Knitting

 

All through the country, in the autumn stillness,

   A web of grey spreads strangely, rim to rim;

And you may hear the sound of knitting needles,

   Incessant, gentle, dim.

 

A tiny click of little wooden needles,

   Elfin amid the gianthood of war;

Whispers of women, tireless and patient,

   Who weave the web afar.

 

Whispers of women, tireless and patient—

   “Foolish, inadequate!” we hear you say;

“Grey wool on fields of hell is out of fashion,”

   And yet we weave the web from day to day.

 

Suppose some soldier dying, gayly dying,

   Under the alien skies, in his last hour,

Should listen, in death’s prescience so vivid,

   And hear a fairy sound bloom like a flower—

 

I like to think that soldiers, gayly dying

   For the white Christ on fields with shame sown deep,

May hear the fairy click of women’s needles,

   As they fall fast asleep.

            —Katherine Hale

 

The poem mystically shrinks the distance between the home front and the battlefield. Fairy enchantments and woven webs of love and homespun yarn comfort dying soldiers, whispering to them of the mothers, sisters, wives, and sweethearts laboring on their behalf. And although men die, it is women who haunt the battlefield, participating in the war with knitted work that is both highly emotional and immensely practical.

Katherine Hale

Katherine Hale was the pseudonym of Mrs. John W. Garvin. Born Amelia Warnock in Galt, Ontario, by the time of the Great War, Hale had “attained distinction in literary and music criticism, poetry, short stories, essays, and in literary and song recitals.”† After the war, Hale published Morning in the West (1923), a free-verse collection of poems that explores modernist themes such as the environment, nationalism, gender roles, and the shaping power of legend and myth, all within a Canadian setting. Katherine Hale died in 1956, and in her obituary, her friend Lotta Dempsey quoted from a letter Hale had written earlier: “I believe that one just has to take every experience fearlessly and saturate it with life, expurgate ruthlessly the un-essentials and then, as best one can, re-think it into poetry….But everyone has his own method; and after all, so far as the boundless world of art is concerned, we are all like pigmies, lost in its tremendous ramifications. ††

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*American journalist quoted in Leading Canadian Poets, edited by Walter Pilling Percival, 1948, p. 81.

**Lilian Whiting, Canada, The Spellbinder, J.M. Dent, 1917, p. 264.

***Wanda Campbell, “Moonlight and Morning: Women’s Early Contribution to Canadian Modernism” in The Canadian Modernists Meet, edited by Dean Irvine, p. 86; Rebecca Campbell, We Gave Our Glorious Laddies: Canadian Women’s War Poetry, 1915–1920, thesis, University of British Columbia, 2007, p. 8.

†John W. Garvin, “Katherine Hale,” in Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited by John W. Garvin, McClelland & Stewart, 1918, p. 72.

††Lotta Dempsey, “Katherine Hale Knew Triumph and Tragedy,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 11 Sept. 1956, p. 14.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The War Office Regrets


Father and son, Royal Engineers
Image from @QMGS191418

Many poems of the First World War recount a soldier’s imagining of his own death (see, for example, Schnack’s “Standing To” or Albert-Paul Granier’s “Fever”). Other poems, often written by noncombatants, imagine the family receiving news of their soldier’s death (such as “His Latch-Key” or “The Mother”). Theodore van Beek’s “The Soldier’s Son” is strikingly original; it imagines a young boy praying for his father at war, unaware that his father lies dead, his body food for vermin and flies.
Family group,
from @QMGS191418

The Soldier’s Son

The little boy whose innocent yellow head
Has bobbed among the buttercups all day,
The earth being silent now and the light shed,
Kneels down to pray.

And, full of faith, he knows that God will keep
Safe one who lies
Feeding the rats that with the shadows creep
And husbanding the flies.
                        1917
            —Theodore van Beek

“The Soldier’s Son” bitterly contrasts the clean faith of a child with the indignities of death on the battlefield. Van Beek’s disillusionment with the war is also evident in his poem “After the ‘Offensive.’”

Born in South Africa, Theodore van Beek emigrated to Scotland in 1908 to attend the University of Edinburgh. He married Katherine Fairbairn, a young woman from Edinburgh, and by the time war was declared in 1914, the couple had three young sons. Enlisting in the British army, van Beek served first with the Artists Rifles and later with the Royal Field Artillery.*

While on active duty in 1917, van Beek received the news that his youngest son, James, had died. Soldiers of the First World War were frequently witnesses to ugly, messy deaths. What we often forget is that these men were not immune from the loss of loved ones on the home front. What must it have been like for a man at war to receive word of the death of a mother, father, wife, daughter, or son? Many of van Beek’s war poems juxtapose the grim realities of war with the loss of his fair-haired toddler (James was approximately three years of age when he died).

The War Office Regrets…..
Theo van Beek, c. 1914

I was dreaming in the firelight when it came
With its few, blurred lines and vividly, a name.
First I felt a little hand on my own;
Then I heard an eager voice;
Then a flame,
Bright and yellow, danced before me
And was blown into the gloom.

Come to me, my little boy,
Fill with living sound my room,
Run about to your heart’s joy,
I will never scold you.
I will never sigh or frown,
I will never put you down.
Come to me, my little boy,
I will hold you….hold you.
                        1917
            —Theodore H. van Beek

Although van Beek survived the war, his marriage did not. Before the war ended, his wife emigrated to Canada with their two surviving sons, boys that van Beek may not have ever seen again. After the war, Van Beek remarried Isabella Hamilton Kyle in 1920 and began a new family, but suffered bankruptcy in the 1920s. He adopted the pseudonym Martin Mayne and turned his talents to song writing, composing the lyrics to the Bennie Goodman tune “I Sent You a Kiss in the Night" as well as “I Remember the Cornfields,” recorded by both Evelyn Knight and Anne Shelton.

During the Second World War, van Beek and his family were bombed from their rented home in Blackheath. Their son, Theodore M. van Beek had volunteered for service with the British Army and fought at the Battle of El Alamein and in the Italian campaign. In December of 1943, van Beek's son was reported “Missing in Action — believed Dead,” but escaped from a POW camp and walked over one-hundred miles through enemy-held territory to cross the front lines and rejoin the British Army. Throughout the uncertainties and challenges of life, van Beek continued to write poetry, and in 1986, it was collected by his son and published in the small volume The Day of Love. Van Beek died in 1958; his last poem in the collection published posthumously by his son is the poem “Epitaph”:

When the last clod is thrown into my grave
And I am sealed in the night, remember me
For nothing I achieved, but for my dreams—
Sparks in the darkness of Eternity.**
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*From biographical foreword written by van Beek’s son Theodore for The Day of Love and Other Poems by Theo van Beek, Rock Press, 1986.
** Sincere thanks to Kate and Lucy van Beek and Stephanie Blaquiere for sharing family photos and memories of Theo van Beek.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Rendezvous with Death


 “Of all the poets who have died young, none has died so happily,” said William Archer, describing Alan Seeger in the “Introduction” to Seeger’s posthumously published poems.* Seeger, sometimes called “the American Rupert Brooke,” was an American living in Paris when war broke out in July of 1914. Within weeks, he had volunteered to fight with the French Foreign Legion, and less than two years later, he was killed at the Somme on July 4, 1916 in a French attack on German lines at Belloy-en-Santerre. According to Archer, on the evening of July 4th,

Alan Seeger advanced in the first rush, and his squad was enfiladed by the first of six German machine guns, concealed in a hollow way. Most of them went down, and Alan among them—wounded in several places. But the following waves of attack were more fortunate. As his comrades came up to him, Alan cheered them on; and as they left him behind, they heard him singing a marching-song in English: “Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée.” They took the village, they drove the invaders out; but for some reason unknown—perhaps a very good one—the battlefield was left unvisited that night. Next morning Alan Seeger lay dead.**

Best-known for his war poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” Seeger wrote extensively about the glory of war and the honor of dying in battle (in this, he can perhaps be more readily compared to the British poet Julian Grenfell). In Seeger’s poem “The Hosts,” he writes,
 
Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
Friend or foe, it shall matter nought;
This only matters, in fine: we fought.
For we were young and in love or strife
Sought exultation and craved excess:
To sound the wildest debauch in life
We staked our youth and its loveliness.
Let idlers argue the right and wrong
And weigh what merit our causes had.
Putting our faith in being strong—
Above the level of good and bad—
For us, we battled and burned and killed
Because evolving Nature willed,
And it was our pride and boast to be
The instruments of Destiny.

In October of 1914, while halted on march to the front lines, Seeger wrote his mother from outside Reims: “I am feeling fine, in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience.”*** He grew increasingly impatient with American neutrality, and in June of 1915 wrote,“Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden…. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.”**** In Seeger’s poem “A Message to America,” he was even more direct:

You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard,
But your honour ends with your own back-yard;
Each man intent on his private goal,
You have no feeling for the whole….

Never one to retreat from confrontation or his sense of his duty (Seeger was a founding member of Harvard’s Socialist Club and a friend of journalist John Reed†), Seeger condemned those who refused to fight. In “On Returning to the Front after Leave,” he also celebrates the “intrepid brotherhood” that soldiers share.

Sonnet XI
Seeger's likeness, Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
On Returning to the Front after Leave

Apart sweet women (for whom Heaven be blessed),
Comrades, you cannot think how thin and blue
Look the leftovers of mankind that rest,
Now that the cream has been skimmed off in you.
War has its horrors, but has this of good—
That its sure processes sort out and bind
Brave hearts in one intrepid brotherhood
And leave the shams and imbeciles behind.
Now turn we joyful to the great attacks,
Not only that we face in a fair field
Our valiant foe and all his deadly tools,
But also that we turn disdainful backs
On that poor world we scorn yet die to shield—
That world of cowards, hypocrites, and fools.
            —Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger, by John Elliott
Smithsonian American Art Museum
William Archer says of the soldier-poet, “But, devoted though he was to his art, he felt that to live greatly is better than to write greatly.”†† Seeger has no known grave. 

The soldier depicted on the memorial to American Volunteers of the Great War in the Place des États-Unis in Paris was modeled on Seeger’s likeness, and an excerpt from his poem “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” is inscribed on its base. His posthumously published poems were reviewed by Harvard classmate T.S. Eliot in The Egoist: “Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping.”†††
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* William Archer, “Introduction,” Poems, by Alan Seeger, Charles Scribner, 1916, p. xi.
** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xliv.
*** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxi.
**** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxvi.
† Shortly after their graduation from Harvard, John Reed wrote a short comic verse describing Seeger: “A timid footstep—enter then the eager Keats-Shelley-Swinburne-Medieval Seeger; / Poe’s raven bank above Byronic brow, / And Dante’s beak—you have his picture now; / In fact he is, though feigning not to know it, / The popular conception of a poet. / Dreaming his eyes are steadily alight / With splendours of a world beyond our sight.” [John Herling, “Harvard’s Class of 1910 Rode Comet’s Tail to Fame,” Congressional Record, Appendix, 23 June 1960, p. A5423.]
†† Archer, “Introduction,” p. xv.
††† T.S. Eliot, “Short Reviews,” Egoist, Dec. 1917, p. 172.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Glory of War

Thiepval, Dead German Soldier, by Ernest Brooks © IWM Q 1284
Bertram Lloyd was a member of the Humanitarian League* and a conscientious objector during the First World War. In 1919, he edited the anthology of war poetry, The Paths of Glory, including poems that protested “the false idealization of war.” Lloyd wrote that it was absurd to celebrate the peace while continuing to glorify war, “as if one should celebrate the return of soberness after a bout of drunkenness, while insisting none the less that the drunkenness too was magnificent.” The anthology included poems written by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Margaret Sackville, Fredegond Shove, and Alec Waugh. Lloyd stated in the book’s preface, “The writers whose poems are included in this collection may hold very diverse views on war. But they are nevertheless all agreed in believing that however much individual gallantry and self-sacrifice it may incidentally call forth, war must be regarded to-day as an execrable blot upon civilization.”**  One of the poems included was H.F. Constantine’s “The Glory of War”:  

The Glory of War

What does it matter if men are torn, and a village razed to desolation?
’Tis a little thing for men to die, and houses can be built of brick and stone;
The glory of a just war surely spreads its mantle over all.

Ruins, Battle of the Scarpe
by Ernest Brooks © IWM Q 1998
The battle is ours: our men rest where yesterday lay the enemy;
The village is ours (for torn earth and smoking bricks were once a village).
What is the cost? A thousand men are killed who did not want to die.
What does that matter? Their country needing them, they gave their lives,
Happy ones, though ignorant of their happiness, they died to make the battle ours;
And their bodies lie grotesquely on the torn slopes about the village.

A lad was shot, just as we started to move forward;
Perhaps you saw him where he lay, with eyes still open,
With eyes still looking out upon the world, dazed and horror-struck.
There lay a hero—who did not want to die.
My sergeant-major’s dead, killed as we entered the village;
You will not find his body tho’ you look for it;
A shell burst on him, leaving his legs, strangely enough, untouched.
Happy man, he died for England;
Happy ones are they who die for England.

Paths of Glory by CRW Nevinson
 © IWM Art. 518
Did he, did that poor lad, truly die for England’s sake?
Did all those thousands who are gone, did they all die for that bright cause?
All England wages war:
The flower of her manhood lies waiting in the cold pale days of Springtime,
Waiting for the harvest that reaps so many souls,
Some are brave and unafraid, some shrink in mortal apprehension;
But all are happy, for they know that by their efforts they are helping
So many of their fellow-countrymen to make their fortunes.
                                                February, 1918
            —H.F. Constantine

“The Glory of War” was first published by the English Review in September of 1918 and attributed to “Major H.F. Constantine.” The name is almost certainly a pseudonym, as no record of a man† serving under that name appears in the records of the British army lists nor in the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War. Directly below “Glory of War” appeared a second poem by Major Constantine, “William of Germany,” which blamed the Kaiser for “all that huge parade of soldiers, dead because of you.”†† A third poem, “The Use of War,” seems to have been the extent of his published work.††† 
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*  Founded in London in 1891, the Humanitarian League sought “Greater Kinship” in its broadest sense: its members opposed capital and corporal punishment, advocated for animal rights, and campaigned against hunting for sport. The manifesto of the Humanitarian League proclaimed, “it is iniquitous to inflict suffering, directly or indirectly, on any sentient being, except when self-defence or absolute necessity can be justly pleaded.” Famous supporters included George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, Leo Tolstoy, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Hardy.
** Bertram Lloyd, “Preface,” The Paths of Glory, Allen & Unwin, 1919, pp. 7, 6, 10.  
† Although unlikely, it is possible that the author was a woman; in the November 1919 review “Soldier Poets” published in The American Review of Reviews, Constantine’s work is mentioned, along with that of other “living soldier poets,” including “W.M. Letts (author of “The Spires of Oxford”).” Winifred Mabel Letts was a British writer who served as a VAD and masseuse for wounded soldiers.
†† Major H.F. Constantine, “William of Germany,” English Review, Sept. 1918, p. 164.
††† Major H.F. Constantine, “The Use of War,” English Review, Nov. 1918, p. 318.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Spring Song 1917

Raised in Cambridge until she was 16, Margaret Postgate recalls the loveliness of spring in the university town: “you cannot be brought up within a mile of the Backs and the Bridges, seeing the weeping willows year by year coming into leaf and the spring flowers waking in St. John’s Wilderness, or be taken, even occasionally, to King’s Chapel when the morning sun is shining through the clear reds and blues of the east window, or even walk to school along the gracious curve of Trumpington Street, without some sense of beauty seeping into you.”*  

But then in 1914, the unthinkable happened, and it changed the world forever.

Spring Song, 1917
            “The Spring is gone out of the year.”
            Pericles on the young men who fell in the war.

O April’s running out and out
   With strong wind’s blowing,
And every day we wait and look
   For green things growing.
      But every day that wakens, sees
      The thrush still plain in the barren trees,
      Singing his puzzled melodies
         Where once were leafy places
            In this strange leafless spring.

O was there ever a spring like this
    With thrushes singing,
And shining sky and May at hand
    And no green springing?
         Ah, there never was a spring like this,
         For when was there a year like this,
         Or a people desolate as this,
            Whose captains in high places
               Have stolen away the spring?
                        —Margaret Postgate

In 1916, following her brother's imprisonment as a conscientious objector, Postgate left her teaching position at St. Paul’s school for girls. She accepted a full-time position at the Fabian Society Research Department, where she met George Douglas Howard Cole, a conscientious objector and socialist (they later married in 1918). Postgate remembers the foreboding that overwhelmed the world:

"Gate of Goodbye" by Francis James Mortimer
© National Media Museum, Bradford UK
Leave-trains from Victoria, packed with soldiers, were seen off by wives and sweethearts bidding what might easily be a last farewell, for within forty-eight hours you might receive the War Office telegram announcing that the man was dead. This narrow margin between vigorous life and muddy and gangrenous death produced an atmosphere heavily charged with emotion—for many years afterwards I could not hear a gramophone playing “Pack Up Your Troubles” or “Ev’ry Little While” without a catch of the breath, so often had they been put on “once more before it’s time to go.”

In Postgate's view, attempts to manage the emotional strain too often resulted in artificial cheer or censure: “the terrible recruiting speeches, the nauseating letters to the Press from people who wanted to ‘give their sons’—or other people’s sons—to shoot strikers, or to send conscientious objectors to the Front, and to shocking statements by prominent gentlemen to the effect that the war was a “crusade of Christ against the Devil.”**

Margaret Postgate Cole 1938
After the war, Postgate Cole remained active in politics as a writer and lecturer, serving for thirteen years as an alderman on London City Council and campaigning in support of comprehensive education. She wrote extensively on labour history and social issues, and was awarded Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 for her work in education. She was created Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1970 for her lifetime achievements. 

Margaret Postgate's only book of poetry was published in 1918, about which she commented, “I like what poetry I have written. But others, save a few of my friends, do not; and Naomi Mitchison (who should know) once explained to me why it wasn’t poetry at all. So I suppose it isn’t.”***
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* Margaret Postgate Cole, Growing up into Revolution, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1949, p. 16.
** Cole, Growing up, p. 54 – 55.
*** Cole, Growing up, p. 47. Naomi Mitchison, novelist and poet, has been called the doyenne of Scottish literature.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Rules for Influenza

Red Cross, St. Louis October 1918 (National Archives)
In September of 1918, a physician wrote from Camp Devens, Massachusetts, “It is only a matter of a few hours … until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand to see one, two, or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths a day, and still keeping it up.”* Colonel Victor C. Vaughan, former president of the American Medical Association,  also visited the US military camp and reported, “In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood. This picture was painted on my memory cells at the division hospital, Camp Devens, in the fall of 1918, when the deadly influenza virus demonstrated the inferiority of human interventions in the destruction of human life.”*
 
Some Americans thought that the 1918 influenza virus was a German weapon of war, released by enemy agents who had arrived in Boston with vials of the germs; others suspected that the German pharmaceutical company Bayer had mixed the virus into aspirin.* German propaganda  blamed the illness on Chinese laborers employed by the Allied Powers.”**

By the end of the world-wide pandemic, at least 20 million had died; estimates range from 20 – 100 million, with most experts believing more than 50 million were killed by the virus. What became known as Spanish Influenza was particularly fatal to healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

With no known cure, most efforts were directed at stopping the spread of the illness. Historian David McCullough writes, “In Boston the stock market closed. In Pennsylvania a statewide order shut down every place of amusement, every saloon. In Kentucky the Board of Health prohibited public gatherings of any kind, even funerals.”*** And an Albuquerque New Mexico newspaper wrote,  “the ghost of fear walked everywhere, causing many a family circle to reunite because of the different members having nothing else to do but stay home.”†

In the chaos and uncertainty that accompanied the virulent pandemic, lists of practical health guidelines were published in nearly every major newspaper. One writer used poetry to spread the message:

Rules for Influenza

Oh, shun the common drinking cup,
            Avoid the kiss and hug,
For in them all there lurks that Hun,
            The influenza bug.

Cough not, nor sneeze when in a crowd;
            ‘Tis neither kind nor neat,
Because it scatters germs around.
            So try to be discreet.

Lick not the thumb in turn o’er
            The papers in your file,
And wear your health mask, though you look
            Like time. Forget it. Smile.

Remember doorknobs harbor germs,
            So wash before you eat.
Avoid the flying clouds of dust
            While walking on the street.

Most anything you do—or don’t—
            Is apt to cause disease,
So don’t do anything you do
            Without precautions, please.
                                    —Dr. Waters (Chemistry)

Nurses in Boston, National Archives
The poem’s author, Dr. C.E. Waters, worked during the First World War at the Bureau of Standards as chief of the Organic Chemistry section. Prior to the war, he had taught at Connecticut Agricultural College and Johns Hopkins University. The poem appears in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt. In a letter dated October 25, 1918, Holt’s fiancée, Lois Crump, included the verse with the note, “I am enclosing some stuff which may make you laugh” (Crump worked at the Bureau of Standards).††

Little has changed in preventing the spread of viral pandemics. Dusty streets and common drinking cups are no longer common, but hand-washing, avoiding close contact, staying at home, and using humor to cope with uncertainty and fear remain very much the same.
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* Gina Kolata, Flu, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, p. 14; p. 16, p. 3.
** J.N. Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics, ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 390
*** David McCullough, “Foreword” in Lynette Iezzoni, Influenza 1918, TV Books, 1999, foreword, p. 7.
† Kolata, p. 23.
†† Maclyn P. Burg and Thomas J. Pressly, editors, The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, Sunflower UP, 1998, p. 263.