Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Song of Verdun

Tragic and symbolic -- it has been said that one cannot fully understand France without understanding the battle of Verdun.  The battle known as the "Mincer" or "Meat Grinder” was the German attempt to goad the French into a fight that was beyond the point of rational calculation, a battle that would “bleed France white.”

The German artillery barrage that marked the start of the battle of Verdun was unlike anything that had ever been seen before.  It began at 7:00 am on 21 February 1916, and over the next ten hours, an estimated one-million shells were fired into the French lines.  Soldiers who survived described a constant deafening rain of building blocks, paving stones, splintered trees, rocks, and dirt.  The shelling churned the ground into mud that mixed with dead bodies.  Lasting until 18 December 1916, the battle of Verdun produced horrific conditions that drove men mad.  Over forty-million artillery shells were fired; entire villages were destroyed forever; between 300,000 and 415,000 men were killed, and between 400,000 and 800,000 were injured.

French soldier and surrealist poet Benjamin Péret wrote of one man’s experience:

Little Song of the Maimed                                        Petit Chanson des Mutilés

Lend me your arm                                                     Prête-moi ton bras
To replace my leg                                                      pour remplacer ma jambe
The rats ate it for me                                                 Les rats me l'ont mangée
At Verdun                                                                  à Verdun
At Verdun                                                                  à Verdun

I ate a lot of rats                                                         J'ai mangé beaucoup de rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg                        mais ils ne m'ont pas rendu ma jambe
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre      c'est pour cela qu'on m'a donné la croix de guerre
And a wooden leg                                                      et une jambe de bois
And a wooden leg                                                      et une jambe de bois.
      -- Benjamin Perét                                                               -- Benjamin Péret
         Translated by David Gascoyne

Just a “little song” about a man who was maimed for life, this poem’s child-like repetitions and blunt directness mock the absurdity of war and the attempts to honor its soldiers.

French cubist artist Fernand Léger, nearly killed by a mustard gas attack at Verdun, described his impressions of Verdun: “I could see out over an area of ten square kilometers that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth.  The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them.  A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded – the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind.  They were no bigger than ants down there.  The artillery dominates everything.  A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency” (Fernand Léger, 7 November 1916).

Both the surrealist poet and the cubist artist challenge us to think about the ways in which modern, industrial war strips us of our very humanity and to consider one of the primary lessons of Verdun: never again.  
The card party, Fernand Leger
Thanks to Mike Hanlon, editor of the blog Roads to the Great War and his magazine Over the Top: Why Verdun? (Feb 2016) for much of the historical background.  Any errors are my own.

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