Sunday, October 5, 2014

Our very gentlemanly little war....

Those were the words in 1917 used by Lieutenant Colonel Alan Dawnay to describe military operations in the Hejaz, and that description captures what I’m finding to be the contradictions and complexities of The Great War, in both the ways it was fought and remembered.

I found Dawnay’s description at a small but moving World War I exhibit at King’s College in London: “1914-1918: The Most Stupendous Struggle” (nearly every museum in London has an exhibit on the war).  The exhibit is on one side of an elaborately decorated chapel-like room with a beautiful Renaissance tomb and marble figures of the family kneeling in a procession of prayer/  On the opposite wall, there are nine small cases, each with five-to-six items that give a glimpse into the history of one-hundred years ago.

One of the cases displays a soldier's scrapbook of photos from the Western front with handwritten descriptions of the scenes (“Near this gun, a German in a gallery, his arm caught by falling timbers, died of hunger” ), a 1917 Christmas card with a festive tank (“All best wishes from Somme, Ancre, Arras, Messines, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai”), and medical descriptions of gas attacks and shell shock.  And this letter from a young soldier to his parents:

“This morning we moved up to E. of Mametz Wood….and we got rather strafed.  One battalion of our brigade lost 2 officers (killed) and 100 men.  We dug ourselves in, but the stench was most  unpleasant, as the dead were lying all round us as thick as peas, Briton and German often locked in a death-grapple.  Many were terribly battered by shell-fire, and as they had been lying out a week or so, were fast decaying.  No sight however ghastly seems to affect me in the least, but I don’t care for the smell of decaying dead….If we go into the attack tomorrow, I can only say that I put all my trust in God and say, “Thy will be done” whether I live or die.  He has been very good to me so far.  Terrible as this carnage is, it has got to be gone through with, and I endeavor to behave as an Englishman and a Christian. Somehow, I would not like to have missed it.  It is a wonderful experience.  Well, my dearest parents, heaps of love to you both.  Your loving son, Basil.”

Just as poignant was the memorial erected by Kings to honor the memory of all of their students and faculty who had been killed in the war:  “They Gave Their Lives….So That You May Give.”  Erected just after the war, each man’s photo appeared on the memorial, along with a description of his place at the university and the details of his death:  Killed at Ypres, October 16, 1917; Missing at High Wood, Somme, September 9, 1916; Killed in Action;  Missing, Presumed Killed; faculty of theology; matriculation class 1913-1914; medical science; office staff.  There are 120 faces, some smiling, some earnest, some pathetically young, all so very human.


  1. You've got to read Pat Barker's Ghost Road trilogy for context and mood and poetry

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    1. Great recommendation, Michael -- great books!