Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Spreading Manure

Land Girl Ploughing, Cecil Aldin, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2618)
While British men fought in the trenches, British women served in the fields.  The Women’s Land Army was begun in 1915, and by 1917 an estimated one quarter of a million women were working as agricultural labourers.  The “Land Girls” fed livestock, milked cows, plowed fields, and harvested fruits and vegetables.  Britain’s labour shortage was real: over three million men had left for military service, and women workers were desperately needed to maintain the country’s food supply.

Despite the need for women workers, resistance was high.  Those with traditional values viewed the Land Girls’ uniform trousers as disgraceful cross-dressing. In response, the government issued posters that celebrated the women’s patriotic efforts and feminized the new roles in an attempt to change public attitudes.*

Rose Macaulay, the daughter of a Cambridge professor, volunteered with the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1916.  Working at Station Farm outside Cambridge, Macaulay wryly wrote of her experiences in the poem “Spreading Manure.”

Spreading Manure

There are fifty steaming heaps in the One Tree field,
            Lying in five rows of ten,
They must all be spread out ere the earth will yield
As it should (and it won’t, even then).

Drive the great fork in, fling it out wide;
            Jerk it with a shoulder throw.
The stuff must lie even, two feet on each side,
            Not in patches, but level -- so.

When the heap is thrown you must go all round
            And flatten it out with the spade,
It must lie quite close and trim till the ground
            Is like bread spread with marmalade.

The north-east wind stabs and cuts our breath;
            The soaked clay numbs our feet.
We are palsied, like people gripped by death,
            In the beating of the frozen sleet.

I think no soldier is so cold as we,
            Sitting in the Flanders mud.
I wish I was out there, for it might be
            A shell would burst to heat my blood.

I wish I was out there, for I should creep
In my dug-out, and hide my head,
I should feel no cold when they laid me deep
            To sleep in a six-foot bed.

I wish I was out there, and off the open land:
            A deep trench I could just endure.
But things being other, I needs must stand
            Frozen, and spread wet manure.
The first three stanzas give a sense of the tedium of the work: fifty steaming piles of dung must be forked, lifted, and flung before the stinking excrement can be evenly smoothed across the field “like bread spread with marmalade.” The simile ironically highlights the contrast between the typical domestic sphere of women and the work of the Land Girls, and the image linking manure with marmalade is both apt and disgusting.  

The last four stanzas use wry humor to highlight a similarity that is even more shocking and disturbing: Macaulay dares to compare the discomforts of the Land Girls’ work with the conditions of the men on the front lines of battle.  Both the soldiers and the Land Girls battle the cold and wallow in the frozen mud.  But “Spreading Manure” argues that the women have it worse: without the shelter of dugouts, they suffer longer spells in the freezing sleet and cold and are more exposed to the elements.  Without bursting shells, the women lack the excitement that warms the blood of the soldiers.  And without the threat of death, the Land Girls cannot anticipate an end to their misery. 

The poem makes these audacious claims as it subtly challenges the social order that limited women’s participation in the war.  The poem’s repeated refrain “I wish I was out there” can be viewed as naïve and self-indulgent – or as a protest against the cultural restrictions that consigned women to roles that were tedious and frustratingly confining.    

As a young girl, Macaulay was a tomboy who had wanted to be a naval captain; a New York Times book review notes that “a sense of adventure was the ‘dominant feature’ of her life.” British writer VS Pritchett described Macaulay as “lively as a needle” with an “irreverent eye and rapid, muttering wit….Activity was her principle, asking questions her ironical pleasure.”

“Spreading Manure” teases the reader with questions: is the comparison between the Land Girls and soldiers’ lives self-absorbed or satirical?  Is confinement worse than danger? Or are all attempts to weigh sacrifice and suffering absurd by their very nature?  In her 1926 novel Crewe Train, Macaulay remarked, “Nothing, perhaps, is strange, once you have accepted life itself, the great strange business which includes all lesser strangenesses.” The same could be said of war.  
Rose Macaulay
*For more on the Land Girls as unconventional soldiers of the First World War, see this link

Monday, March 21, 2016

Beauty in everything

First Glimpse of Ypres, Lt. C.H. Barraud, Canadian War Museum
As war poet Richard Aldington wrote, some aspects of the Western Front were “More beautiful than one can tell.”  Carola Oman, a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, wrote poetry that offers a woman’s perspective, describing the beauty she found in the landscape of war.   

In the Ypres Sector

Near Zillebeke, © IWM (Q 109521)
You have left beauty here in everything,
And it is we that are both deaf and blind.
By coarse grass mounds here the small crosses rise
Sunk sideways in the ditch, or low inclined
Over some little stream where waters sing
By shell holes blue with beauty from the skies.

Even the railway cutting has kind shade
And colour, where the rusty wire is laid
Round the soft tracks. Because you knew them thus
The dark mouthed dug-outs hold a light for us.
And here each name rings rich upon our ears
Which first we learnt with sorrow and with tears. 
            --Carola Oman

The first line opens with the tenderness of a love poem: “You have left beauty here in everything.”  Who does the poem address?  The beauty has been left by each soldier who has known the “dark mouthed dug-outs,” and every man buried under the “small crosses [that] rise/ Sunk sideways in the ditch.”  The dead of the Ypres Sector imbue the land with beauty, from the watery shell holes that reflect the blue of the sky, to the shade and colour of the barbed wire stretched along the Western Front. 

And what are the names that ring “rich upon our ears”?  Messines, Langemarck, Zonnebeke, Zillebeke, Hill 60, Polygon Wood, and Passchendaele – these are the names of the places where the sheer volume of death and suffering threatened to overwhelm the imagination. 

How can Oman possibly describe these places of sorrow and tears as “rich”?  The poem reveals that the names have achieved their reverent power not because of the military objectives that were won or lost there, but because “you knew them thus.”  The battles’ names have been sanctified by the presence of those who fought and died there: men who were dearly loved – husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sweethearts. 

Over fifty years earlier, Abraham Lincoln dedicated the American Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg, saying, “We cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”  In a similar vein, Carola Oman, in her poem “The Menin Road, March 1919,” looked out over the “flat dim land,” and asked, “I wonder are you wholly gone?”  A sense of the courage and spirit of the men of the Ypres Sector still lingers at the battle sites, one-hundred years later.  
Casualty Clearing Station at Gezaincourt, © IWM (Q 8734)
Oman’s small book of poetry, The Menin Road and Other Poems (1919), is dedicated to four of her friends who were also V.A.D.s working in the hospitals and casualty clearing stations of the war as they tended the never-ending parade of dying and wounded men.  Her poems are dedicated to Lillian Chapman, Janet Dundas Allen, Una Barron, and May Wedderburn Cannan, “In memory of days we served together in England and France.”

This post also attempts to honor the V.A.D.s and nurses of the First World War, who fought their own battles and who warred against suffering and despair to find “beauty in everything.” 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Battling Homesickness

A century ago, charitable organizations such the Salvation Army, the Jewish Welfare Board and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) mobilized to support the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). The YMCA alone operated 1,500 canteens and nearly 4,000 huts and recreational tents, many of which were located just behind the front lines.  Never before had a nonprofit, community-based organization assisted the military on such an immense scale.  With a paid staff of over 26,000 and an estimated 35,000 volunteers, the YMCA was responsible for “90% of all welfare work” that supported American troops in Europe.* 

Canteens staffed by friendly American female volunteers boosted morale and reminded the doughboys of home as the women dispensed not only doughnuts, but also hot chocolate, coffee, cookies, and pie.  We will most likely never know the name of the doughboy who penned the following popular poem that celebrated one of the few pleasures of the war. 

Home is Where the Pie Is
“Home is where the heart is” –
Thus the poet sang;
But “home is where the pie is”
For the doughboy gang.
Crullers in the craters
Pastry in abris
Our Salvation Army lass
Sure knows how to please.

Watch her roll the pie crust
Mellower than gold;
Watch her place it neatly
Within its ample mold;
Sniff the grand aroma
While it slowly bakes—
Though the whine of Minnie shells
Echoes far awakes.

Tin hat for a halo!
Ah, she wears it well!
Making pies for homesick lads
Sure is “beating hell”;
In a region blasted
By fire and flame and sword
Our Salvation Army lass
Battles for the Lord!

Call me sacrilegious,
And irreverent, too;
Pies? They link us up with home
As naught else can do!
“Home is where the heart is”—
True, the poet sang;
But “home is where the pie is”
To the Yankee gang!

The poem speaks with such irrepressible good humor that you can almost see the smile on the face of the soldier who has composed an ode to the most American of desserts.  Pie is better than “Crullers in the craters” (perhaps one of the most original alliterative lines in war poetry); it is the antithesis of “fire and flame and sword” and the horrors of the Western Front.  Apple pie – mellow, ample, and grand – serves up memories on a plate.

This isn’t a poem that expresses one man’s musings on the war, but rather a collective anthem that remembers home.  The Salvation Army volunteer is our lass; she serves so near to the front that she wears a tin helmet like a halo, and her bravery inspires all the “doughboy gang.”   

The Salvation Army reported that the young women who served at the canteens “were the touch of home which comforted the soldier on the front line….Stories have come back to our headquarters of great husky lads who called nineteen year old girls ‘Ma.’ It was not funny, it was perfectly natural, and the girls and the men understood the great instinct which prompted the affectionate greeting” (Atlanta Constitution, 13 April 1919). 

Irreverent?  Sacrilegeous? The women canteen workers understood, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me” -- even in the simple baking and serving of pie.
Salvation Army Ensign Stella Young
*This and other statistics on the YMCA in the First World War can be found at Doughboy Center, The History of the YMCA in World War I.”