Monday, January 25, 2016

The Law of the Trench

Cyril Horne & Emmy Wehlen
Before Irish-born Cyril Morton Horne joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and served nearly a year fighting on the Western Front, he had sung and danced in musical comedies in London’s West End and on New York’s Broadway.  In Horne’s last role before joining the British Army, he appeared in the operetta Mlle. Modiste as the romantic lead, a French army captain in love with a shop girl.  In that role, he’d sung, “For there’s always a hitch in it somewhere, and the thought sets your brain in a whirl, for seldom if ever do you find them together – the time and the place and the girl.” 

He found himself in a very different drama in 1915, one of the few officers from his company who survived the Battle of Loos unwounded.  Sometime after the battle, in late 1915, he wrote what is considered to be one of the earliest poems describing the realities of the trench life: “The Moles.”  I’ve included an excerpt of the poem; the full text can be found on pages 3-4 in Songs of Shrapnel, and Other Verse by Cyril Morton Horne. 

The Moles

I’ve been in a trench for fifteen days,
I'm choked for the want of air;
It's harvest time where my mother stays,
And I'm wishing that I was there.

I've ceased to count in the scheme of things.
My courage has waned and set;
It's trysting-time where the mavis sings
And I'm wishing I could forget.
We've learnt the law of shot and shell,
We've learnt the law of steel;
But the Law of the Trench is a cultured Hell
For it stifles the power to feel.
We have used our youth and lost the strength
That the spirit of youth controls;
We have become no more at length
Than partially human moles.
And this is our Fate: When the Gods are kind
Our existence shall simply cease —
A sniper's bullet — a trench that's mined —
God-speed, and a quick release!

What is striking about the poem is the matter-of-fact way in which it describes how the war has transformed men into animals.  The guiding laws of morality and faith have been replaced with “the law of shot and shell…the law of steel,” and months of living half-underground have blunted the soldiers’ ability to feel.  The young men in the trenches are no more than “partially human moles.”  They have seen repeated attempts to break free in charges over the top, but these have resulted only in thousands of dead and wounded, some bodies never recovered, some trapped between the lines, many hastily buried in make-shift cemeteries.  The sum of these experiences brings the poignant realization, “I’ve ceased to count in the scheme of things.”  Men have lost not only their humanity, but their individual identities in the mass slaughter.

Cyril Morton Horne was killed on 27 January, 1916 when he and a fellow officer ignored “The Law of the Trench” and attempted to rescue a wounded comrade lying in No Man’s Land.  The preface to his posthumously published book of poems states, “A shrapnel shell exploded overhead just as his comrades were ready to cheer him for his heroic rescue. Both men were killed instantly.” 

Three years earlier, Horne had sung in the finale of Mlle Modiste, “Alas to part, how great the sorrow, to leave the friends grown fond with years, to know perchance that on the morrow, for love and smiles come doubts and tears.”  His wife Marie chose as the epitaph for his grave the first two lines from one of his poems -- “Aftermath”:
A grim gray tribute of memory
Is all that we have left to give.
To those who have fought and fallen
From those who sorrow and live.
Memory lives; and we wonder
If the law of the Gods was kind,
For the hardest battle was fought by
The Somebody-left-behind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees, Charles Napier Hemy
English folklore believes that when a member of a village dies, the bees must be told or they will desert the local hive.  As Peter Stanford explains in How to Read a Graveyard, “The origins [of the belief] are obscure: some say bees are traditional symbols of fertility, and so instinctively flee death, others that they used to have a role in some cultures carrying souls into the afterlife, while their honey was a symbol of the divine, or even heaven” (164).  There are various customs for telling the bees; these include hanging black crepe about the hive so that the bees join in the mourning ceremonies, inviting the bees to the funeral, or visiting the hive and whispering the names of the dead. 

Irish writer Katharine Tynan dedicated her poem “Telling the Bees” to nineteen-year-old Edward Tennant, known to his family and friends as “Bim,” just one of the nearly 100,000 British men killed during the four-month Battle of the Somme.  During the summer of 1916, the English countryside must have echoed with confessions of grief whispered beside the hives of honeybees.

Telling the Bees 
(for Edward Tennant)

Edward Tennant
Tell it to the bees, lest they
Umbrage take and fly away,
That the dearest boy is dead,
Who went singing, blithe and dear,
By the golden hives last year.
Curly-head, ah, curly-head!

Tell them that the summer's over,
Over mignonette and clover;
Oh, speak low and very low!
Say that he was blithe and bonny,
Good as gold and sweet as honey,
All too late the roses blow!

Say he will not come again,
Not in any sun or rain,
Heart's delight, ah, heart's delight!
Tell them that the boy they knew
Sleeps out under rain and dew
In the night, ah, in the night! 
              --by Katharine Tynan

While the act of telling the bees underscores the deep connections that exist between humans and the natural world, the poem uses the folk custom to draw our attention to the ways in which the war has ruptured that connection.  The joy of last year’s curly-headed youth who “went singing, blithe and dear” by the golden hives seems a lifetime away – and indeed it is, now that “the dearest boy is dead.”  Edward Tennant, dead at nineteen, “will not come again,/Not in any sun or rain.”  The tranquility of the golden hives, the fragrance of clover, and the sweetness of honey are lost on the dead boy who “sleeps out under rain and dew/In the night,” – a truth so impossible to believe that it can only be repeated: “ah, in the night!”  The beauty of the pastoral scene brimming with life and late-blooming roses is turned on its head; it is jarringly incomprehensible that the young man who happily wandered the fields near his home has died in a cold and muddy field in France.  

Tennant was killed by a German sniper on September 22, 1916, while he himself was on a nighttime sniping mission. In his last letter to his mother, dated September 20th, he wrote, “To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and tomorrow we go over the top….I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? ….I feel rather like saying, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish, ‘nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou willest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.’”  Like so many at the Somme, Tennant seems to have known that it was unlikely he would survive the upcoming attack.  

After his death, a private who served under him wrote to Tennant’s mother, offering condolences and recalling, “When danger was greatest, his smile was loveliest.” 

Katharine Tynan
Tennant's grave, Guillemont, France
(photo by Andrew Holmes)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hymn of Hate

"May God Punish England"-- John Bull bribes the Devil
The previous post featured the Belgian poem “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army,” which inflamed support for the First World War and cursed the German soldiers.  However, the most famous hate-the-enemy, nationalistic poem of the war was written by Ernst Lissauer, a German-Jewish poet.  His “Hymn of Hate” was composed shortly after war broke out in 1914, and in just a few short months, it was translated and published in the United States (then a neutral nation). The New York Times admired Lissauer’s technical skill, but described the poem as “simply abominable,” and “a brutal and wicked production.”* In Germany, not surprisingly, the poem was an immediate success.  The Kaiser honored Lissauer, and the Crown Prince of Bavaria ordered that the poem be printed and distributed to his troops. 

Hymn of Hate

German poster with sword thrust into Britain
French and Russian, they matter not,
A blow for a blow and a shot for a shot!
We love them not, we hate them not,
We hold the Weichsel and Vosges gate.
We have but one and only hate,
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have one foe and one alone.
He is known to you all, he is known to you all,
He crouches behind the dark gray flood,
Full of envy, of rage, of craft, of gall,
Cut off by waves that are thicker than blood.
Come, let us stand at the Judgment Place,
An oath to swear to, face to face,
An oath of bronze no wind can shake,
An oath for our sons and their sons to take.
Come, hear the word, repeat the word,
Throughout the Fatherland make it heard.
We will never forego our hate,
We have all but a single hate,
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have one foe and one alone —

In the Captain's Mess, in the banquet hall,
Sat feasting the officers, one and all,
Like a sabre blow, like the swing of a sail,
One seized his glass and held high to hail;
Sharp-snapped like the stroke of a rudder's play,
Spoke three words only: "To the Day!"
Whose glass this fate?
They had all but a single hate.
Who was thus known?
They had one foe and one alone--

Take you the folk of the Earth in pay,
With bars of gold your ramparts lay,
Bedeck the ocean with bow on bow,
Ye reckon well, but not well enough now.
French and Russian, they matter not,
A blow for a blow, a shot for a shot,
We fight the battle with bronze and steel,
And the time that is coming Peace will seal.
You we will hate with a lasting hate,
We will never forego our hate,
Hate by water and hate by land,
Hate of the head and hate of the hand,
Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,
Hate of seventy millions choking down.
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have one foe and one alone--


(Here is the text of the poem in German.) 

Unlike Cammaerts’ “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army,” this poem doesn’t focus on the harm it wishes to the enemy or the specific tortures it wishes to inflict on opposing troops.  Instead, the repeated We is the focus of the poem, as Germans join together in song, feasts, and toasts to vow their common hatred of ENGLAND!  The British are mocked as cowards who crouch behind the “dark grey flood” of the English Channel, and Germany's shared sense of outrage at England's perceived betrayal fosters German unity: “We love as one, we hate as one.” The German loathing for England inspires battle zeal as they “fight the battle with bronze and steel.” While the poem is titled as a hymn, its sentiment seems nearer to a rousing drinking song, and it’s easy to imagine with that a few editorial changes, it could work as a modern sports anthem. 

Curiously, the poem became almost as popular in England as in Germany.  Lissauer, who had also coined the German Army’s slogan “Gott Strafe England” (may God punish England), could not have anticipated that the British would view his war slogan as a compliment, nor that the British would find a great deal of amusement in parodying his “Hymn of Hate.” Newspapers in England published the text of the poem with an accompanying musical score, and the choir at the Royal College of Music performed it as a joke.  A review of the performance noted that although the 100-member British choir was instructed to sing “with plenty of snarl,” their laughter made this difficult, and “when they came to the word England, they rolled it out in fine style.” 

Lissauer himself grew to regret writing the poem.  In 1926, he wrote that instead of writing a poem of hatred against England, he should have written a poem of love for Germany.  In the years following World War I, Germany, the country he so loved, rejected him as a Jew and accused him of “fanatical hatred” that was “utterly un-German” and “characteristic of nothing so much as the Jewish race.” Tragically, the hatred that inspired his poem did not end with the First World War. 
1915 news article
 *This and other historical information on the poem and its author can be found in the 1987 History Today article by C.C. Aronsfeld, “Ernst Lissauer and the Hymn of Hate.”