Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Back to Rest

CRW Nevinson, Harvest of Battle, ©IWM (Art.IWM ART 1921) 
The Battle of Loos (known to the Germans as Herbstschlacht or Autumn Battle) was the largest British offensive of 1915 on the Western Front.  The battle began at dawn on September 25th, and by the time it ended on October 13th, its story was one that had become horribly familiar: men were ordered to attack heavily fortified machine gun positions, with predictable and tragic results.  The first British use of poison gas killed Germans and British indiscriminately, depending on the direction of the wind, and British attackers suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom have no known grave.  A British officer writing after the battle said, “From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.”* 

William Noel Hodgson, youngest child of a vicar and known to his regiment as “Smiler,” was among those who fought at Loos.  In the aftermath of the battle, Hodgson wrote about what the soldiers had endured and how it had changed them. 

Back to Rest
(Composed while marching to Rest Camp
after severe fighting at Loos)

A leaping wind from England,
The skies without a stain,
Clean cut against the morning
Slim poplars after rain,
The foolish notes of sparrows
And starlings in a wood –
After the grime of battle
We know that these are good.

Death whining down from Heaven,
Death roaring from the ground,
Death stinking in the nostril,
Death shrill in every sound,
Doubting we charged and conquered –
Hopeless we struck and stood.
Now when the fight is ended
We know that it was good.

We that have seen the strongest
Cry like a beaten child,
The sanest eyes unholy,
The cleanest hands defiled,
We that have known the heart blood
Less than the lees of wine,
We that have seen men broken,
We know man is divine.

The poem’s opening stanza exults in simply being alive.  With senses acutely aware of the sounds, smells, and sights of life, the poet has cause to marvel at the small miracles of the day.  The wind, weather, birds, and trees rejoice with him, and contrasted with the grime of war, the freshness of rain and the breeze cleanse the men who march to their rest.  Like the Creator of Genesis, they pronounce everything “good.” 

The second stanza is darker; the first four lines lead with the repeated drumbeat of “Death.”  The deafening noise and appalling smells of the battle are overwhelming.  And yet despite horrific conditions, despite the men’s doubts (perhaps in their commanders, perhaps in their own fortitude), and despite their hopelessness (suffering and death seem inevitable), the soldiers attack.  When the fighting has ended and the men realize they have survived, they are able to pronounce even the fighting itself “good.”

The third stanza reveals the horrors of war, as well as its bewildering mystery. Strong and sane before battle, the men returning from the front lines have committed and observed atrocities  that leave them unholy, defiled, and helplessly weeping like children. In his Battalion War Diary, Hodgson writes of finding “six men killed in their sleep by a single shell, a shortfall from their own artillery.  He sees ‘a white hand with a ring on the little finger,’ and, ‘thinking of some girl or wife at home, bends down to recover the ring, and finds that the hand ends abruptly at the wrist.  There is no sign of the owner about’” (Zeepvat’s Before Action** 127).  Men witnessed the brokenness of bodies and minds after battle – and in seeing and surviving even this, they are not diminished, but divine. 

Less than a year later, on July 1, 1916, the opening day of the Somme offensive, Hodgson and the men of the  9th Devonshires were ordered to attack German trenches near Mametz.  By the end of the day, 159 men of the battalion lay dead in No Man’s Land, including Hodgson, who had been shot through the throat.  The men were buried together in the trench they had left that morning, and the unit’s survivors erected a wooden cross above their graves that read, “The Devonshires held this trench.  The Devonshires hold it still.” 
Devonshire cemetery, Hodgson's grave with wreath

*Rawlinson, quoted in Richard Holmes’ The Little Field-Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, J. Cape, 1981, p. 304.
**Charlotte Zeepvat’s Before Action, is an absorbing and insightful biography of Hodgson. 

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