Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I really can't shoot a man with a cold

Stars and Stripes, February 1918
It’s a dark night, the moon hasn’t yet risen, and in No Man’s Land, a British soldier is playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with his German counterparts.  And then a man muffles a sneeze.

In No Man's Land
(Hammerhead Wood, Thiepval, 1915)
by Ewart Alan Mackintosh

The hedge on the left, and the trench on the right,
And the whispering, rustling wood between,
And who knows where in the wood to-night
Death or capture may lurk unseen.
The open field and the figures lying
Under the shade of the apple trees —
Is it the wind in the branches sighing.
The Front Line at Night, JA Churchman
Or a German trying to stop a sneeze ?

Louder the voices of night come thronging,
But over them all the sound is clear.
Taking me back to the place of my longing
And the cultured sneezes I used to hear.
Lecture-time and my tutor's " handkerchief "
Stopping his period's rounded close,
Like the frozen hand of the German ranker
Down in a ditch with a cold in his nose.

I’m cold, too, and a stealthy snuffle
From the man with a pistol covering me,
And the Bosche moving off with a snap and a shuffle
Break the windows of memory —
I can't make sure till the moon gets lighter —
Anyway shooting is over bold.
Oh, damn you, get back to your trench, you blighter,
I really can't shoot a man with a cold.

Mixing horror and the commonplace, the poem shows us the absurdity of war. The dangers of the situation in No Man’s Land are very real as snipers stalk one another in the night, and men with loaded pistols seek enemy targets in the dark.  This tension is both heightened and broken by the most ordinary of moments:  a man sneezes.

A common misery joins the enemy soldiers.  Cold, wet, dirty, and exhausted, they fight not only one another, but the nagging maladies of their situations: dysentery, trench foot, and the common cold. As the poem makes clear, a head cold is likely to get a soldier killed if he can’t stop his sneezes and sniffles from revealing his position. But the very absurdity of it – being killed because of a sneeze – takes the British soldier back to his childhood, to the place of his “longing,” and he remembers with silly fondness the “cultured sneezes” he used to hear as his tutor attempted to stifle them in a handkerchief.

I’m fascinated by these “out-of-place-and-time” moments that so many war poems record – soldiers who stop in the midst of their battle duties to contemplate the fields of home, to recall a piece of music, to remember a girl in a garden, or to wonder if the old cow has died.

Waking from his brief reverie, the British Tommy reflects on their shared misery and holds his fire, neglecting his duty: that of killing the German.  There’s a bit of name calling as the Bosch is damned back to his own trench:  he’s called a “ranker,” (an enlisted man of the lower classes) and a “blighter” (a man who’s contemptibly unlucky), but this is a night of live and let live -- until the next time orders come to maim, kill, and destroy.

Ewart Alan Mackintosh, author of “No Man’s Land,” enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in December of 1914.  Embracing his Scottish heritage, he played the pipes, spoke Gaelic, and was nicknamed “Tosh.”  Wounded and gassed at the Somme in August of 1916, he was sent back to England to recover, and while serving as a training officer outside Cambridge, he became engaged to Sylvia Marsh, a Quaker VAD. Mackintosh returned to France in October of 1917 and was shot and killed on November 21, 1917.
Ewart Alan Mackintosh

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