Thursday, June 4, 2015

Come, friend, and swim

Cape Helles, Gallipoli peninsula
 AP Herbert's poem "The Bathe" considers the question, "What would you do if you knew today was your last day on earth?" 

The Gallipoli campaign (the Allies' attempt to establish a sea route between the Mediterranean and its Russian ally), began on April 25, 1915 when Allied troops landed on the shores of the Turkish peninsula.  By early June, two failed attempts had been made to attack Turkish positions and gain the high ground just beyond the village of Krithia. 

On June 4, 1915, the Third Battle of Krithia was launched at noon, part of the British commander's attempt to maintain "ceaseless initiative," an ironic description of a campaign that resulted in an estimated 500,000 total casualties, of which approximately 50,000 men had died from both sides by January of 1916.  The Third Battle of Krithia gained the Allies approximately 200 – 250 yards of forward territory, at the cost of an estimated 6,500 British and French casualties, while the Turkish army lost an estimated 9,000 – 10,000 men. 

Writing in the days just before the battle, AP Herbert writes of the simple joys of life in the shadow of death. 

The Bathe
by AP Herbert

Come friend and swim. We may be better then,
But here the dust blows ever in the eyes
Swimming at Cape Helles, National Army Museum
And wrangling round are weary fevered men,
Forever mad with flies.
I cannot sleep, nor even long lie still,
And you have read your April paper twice;
To-morrow we must stagger up the hill
To man a trench and live among the lice.

But yonder, where the Indians have their goats,
There is a rock stands sheer above the blue,
Where one may sit and count the bustling boats
And breathe the cool air through;
May find it still is good to be alive,
May look across and see the Trojan shore
Twinkling and warm, may strip, and stretch, and dive.
And for a space forget about the war.

Then will we sit and talk of happy things,
Home and 'the high' and some far fighting friend,
And gather strength for what the morrow brings,
For that may be the end.
It may be we shall never swim again,
Never be clean and comely to the sight,
May rot untombed and stink with all the slain.
Come, then, and swim. Come and be clean to-night.

The experience of war is vividly drawn with specifics:  dust, fever, flies, sleeplessness, lice, rot, and stink.  But that is for tomorrow.  Today offers the opportunity to "for a space forget about the war."  The present moment holds out the promise of bathing in the waters of the Mediterranean with a friend, breathing "the cool air through," stretching and diving into the blue, sitting and talking of "happy things," -- a time to "gather strength for what the morrow brings." The word "may" is repeated twice here:  it is still possible to see the "Trojan shore" and be reminded of glorious epic battles of the past, just as it is possible on the eve of battle to "find it still is good to be alive." 

Yet this poem is written by a man who has seen enough of war to know that the dead are not glorious, but "rot untombed," and it may be his fate shortly to join those who "stink with all the slain."  The continued repetition of the word "may" highlights the uncertainties of life during war time.  On May 24th, the stench of the bodies decaying between the lines caused a truce to be called so that the dead of both sides could be buried.  One of the men assigned to the burial detail recalls, "Some of the bodies were rotted so much that there were only bones and part of the uniform left. The bodies of the men killed on the nineteenth (it had now been five days) were awful. Most of us had to work in short spells as we felt very ill. We found a few of our men who had been killed in the first days of the landing" (Albert Facey). 

Most likely, at some time in the next ten days "The Bathe" was written.  Following the previous five weeks of stumbling attacks into the filth of battle, the poem simply invites a friend, "Come, then, and swim. Come and be clean to-night."  Washed clean both literally and metaphorically, the men in the water are baptized into life and comradeship before the baptism of fire that is shortly to come. 

The author of the poem, AP Herbert, had his swim with friends, as described by Lt. William Ker in a letter home dated May 30, 1915:  "You never saw such a conglomeration of strange troops. You should have seen me and A. P. Herbert the other evening bathing in the Dardanelles near some Frenchmen and Senegalese, with the Turkish lines (or, rather, the place where they were) in sight on a ridge to our left beside some dismantled forts, the Plain of Troy before us on the other side, some guns on the Asiatic side in sending an occasional shrapnel shell over on our right, and a French battery immediately behind us having shots at them. I took a bathing party down to the beach yesterday. The scene was a cross between Blackpool in the season and the Ganges. The men think it a fine picnic, but we are going in the firing line tomorrow night." 
A.P. Herbert

On June 4th, Herbert joined the attack with his unit, the Hawke Battalion.  He survived Gallipoli and other battles on the Western Front until he was seriously wounded in April of 1917 and invalided back to England.  One-hundred years after the Third Battle of Krithia, the longing to be cleansed from war echoes across the years: "Come, then, and swim.  Come and be clean to-night."      

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