Thursday, June 30, 2016

High Wood

London Cemetery and High Wood
The Bois des Foureaux, known to the British as “High Wood,” was the scene of a months-long struggle lasting from July to September of 1916.  Covering an area approximately one-tenth of a square mile (or about 75 acres), High Wood saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Somme.  Over 8.000 British and German men were killed in attacks on the wood. It was called “the rottenest place on the Western Front,” and British Major-General Charles Barter was relieved of his command due to the “wanton waste of men.” 

In 1918, British Lieutenant John Purvis envisioned a time when the war would be over.  Imagining the crowds of tourists who would come to visit the battlefields of the Great War, he wrote of High Wood. 

High Wood

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Furneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being....
          Madame, please, 

You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way .....
          the path, sir, please, 

The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.
—Philip Johnstone (pseudonym for Lt. John Stanley Purvis)

As we mark the centenary of the First World War, it seems appropriate to ask why we visit battlefields. What is it that we hope to achieve or see or feel? Writing in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot composed a poem about another site of pilgrimage, “Little Gidding.” Although written about a seventeenth-century church, Eliot’s words seem strangely appropriate as we reflect today on sites of conflict and remembrance.   
John Stanley Purvis
T.S. Eliot
©National Portrait Gallery,London

      If you came this way, 
     Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
     At any time or at any season,
     It would always be the same: you would have to put off
     Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
     Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
     Or carry report. You are here to kneel
     Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
     Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
     Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
     And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
     They can tell you, being dead: the communication
     Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
     Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

     Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What did we know of summer?

A Howitzer in Action, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2957)
A wall of sound. A deafening roar. A ceaseless rain of shells. These were soldiers' impressions as they described one of the greatest artillery actions the world had ever seen, the British bombardment that preceded the July 1st 1916 attack at the Somme. “The din of hundreds of shells whizzing over our heads was like several ghost-like express trains hurtling through the sky,” said Corporal George Ashurt of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

The shelling began on June 24th and could be heard over 240 miles away in London. For the next six days, more than 1500 heavy guns, often spaced at intervals of less than 30 yards, fired over 1,500,000 artillery and gas shells at German positions. British General Sir Henry Rawlinson is reported to have said, “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.”

Rawlinson was quite wrong about the bombardment’s effectiveness at eliminating enemy opposition. British soldiers attacked the German lines on July 1st 1916 , and 20,000 British men were killed, most dying in the first hours of the attack. 

While bombardments did not kill every man in the trenches, they were a horrific torture to endure. In a letter dated April of 1916, British soldier-poet T.P. Cameron Wilson wrote, “a real bombardment, where the sky is one screaming sheet of metal, is hell indescribable.”  His poem “During the Bombardment,” attempts to communicate the experience. 

During the Bombardment

What did we know of birds?
A Crump, H.S. Williamson
Though the wet woods rang with their blessing,
And the trees were awake and aware with wings,
And the little secrets of mirth, that have no words,
Made even the brambles chuckle, like baby things
Who find their toes too funny for any expressing.  

What did we know of flowers? 
Though the fields were gay with their flaming
Poppies, like joy itself, burning the young green maize,
And spreading their crinkled petals after the showers — 
Cornflower vieing with mustard; and all the three of them shaming
The tired old world with its careful browns and greys.  

What did we know of summer,
The larks, and the dusty clover,
And the little furry things that were busy and starry-eyed?
Each of us wore his brave disguise, like a mummer,
Hoping that no one saw, when the shells came over,
The little boy who was funking — somewhere inside!
     Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson

The roar and reverberations of an artillery bombardment consume the soldiers who must endure it. During the crash of exploding shells, men become oblivious to the sights and sounds of the world around them, blind to the fields of poppies and cornflowers, deaf to the sounds of birds and wind and woods. 

How loud is a bombardment that can be heard over 200 miles away? First World War bombardments were estimated to reach noise levels of at least 140 decibels, louder than a jackhammer at 50 feet (95 dB), louder than a power mower at 3 feet (107 dB), louder than sandblasting or a rock concert (115 dBs), and well past the point of pain that begins at 125 dBs. Even with hearing protection (which was not issued to men at the Front), 140 decibels is the loudest recommended noise exposure, and short-term exposure at this level is likely to result in permanent damage. 
An experience of this kind alters reality: the poem asks, what did we know of birds, of flowers, of summer? Only the rain of shells and the engulfing noise are real: even a sense of time and of the season are lost in the barrage of death.

Most terrifying of all, the men lose themselves. While their outward appearance remains that of men under fire, they know that this is only a disguise.  Like actors in a drama gone horribly wrong, the soldiers feel themselves to be no more than small boys "funking"  overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed, unable to do what is demanded of them. 

Recent research reported in the New York Times on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (known during World War I as “shell shock”) has revealed startling changes in the brains of those who have survived blast sites. The researchers have concluded, “modern warfare destroys the brain.” 

It is nearly impossible to imagine what men experienced and endured in the trenches of the First World War.  In April of 1916, T.P Cameron Wilson wrote,

“War is about the most unclean thing on earth. There are certain big clean virtues about it – comradeship and a whittling away of non-essentials, and sheer stark triumphs of spirit over shrinking nerves, but it’s the calculated death, the deliberate tearing of young bodies – if you’ve once seen a bright-eyed fellow suddenly turned to a goggling idiot, with his own brains trickling down into his eyes from under his cap – as I’ve done, you’re either a peace-maker or a degenerate.”

T.P. Cameron Wilson did not live to see the peace; he was killed in the German spring offensive of 1918, his body never found.     
T.P. Cameron Wilson

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Wrestling with God

It is commonly accepted that the one of the casualties of the First World War was belief in God.  By the second year of the war, the British public was growing to resent Church of England clergy who supported the war and encouraged others to enlist while they remained safe in their pulpits.
The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, was one of the most enthusiastic war promoters, and his hatred of Germany was so vociferous that even Prime Minister Asquith described the bishop’s rhetoric as “jingoism of the shallowest kind.”

However, approximately 3,000 of the 25,000 Church of England clergy did enlist and accompany troops to the front as military chaplains; they were likely as diverse as the men they served.  Some were scorned, others were loved.  Robert Graves, in his memoir Goodbye to All That, accused Anglican chaplains of being cowardly and out-of-touch, while other soldiers wrote admiringly of regimental chaplains who not only lived with their men, but risked everything to go “over the top” with their units and assist with the wounded.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was one of the beloved chaplains of the war, known to the troops as Woodbine Willy for his habit of offering cigarettes to the men in his care. Serving in France from December of 1915 until 1919, Studdert Kennedy was also a war poet.  His writings frequently grapple with doubts and questions as he attempts to distinguish between clichés of faith and an authentic spirituality.

As the war dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to see the presence of a loving God in the relentless suffering and death. But unlike other war poets who criticized and dismissed the Christian faith as an empty sham, Studdert Kennedy, like Jacob, wrestled with his God for answers that could stand up under harsh scrutiny.

His poem “Solomon in All His Glory” alludes to the brevity of human life, while affirming the dignity and beauty of each individual’s sacrifice that breaks the heart of God.

Solomon in All His Glory

Still I see them coming, coming,
In their ragged broken line,
Walking wounded in the sunlight,
Wounded at the Somme, 1916
Clothed in majesty divine.

For the fairest of the lilies,
That God's summer ever sees,
Ne'er was clothed in royal beauty
Such as decks the least of these.

Tattered, torn, and bloody khaki,
Gleams of white flesh in the sun,
Raiment worthy of their beauty,
And the great things they have done.

Purple robes and snowy linen
Have for earthly kings sufficed,
But these bloody sweaty tatters
Were the robes of Jesus Christ.
--GA Studdert Kennedy

The poem gazes unflinchingly at the suffering of the men at the front: “Still I see them coming, coming.” It bleakly catalogues the bloody wounds, the torn uniforms, and the immensity of misery as evidenced by the ragged line of walking wounded that stretches out of sight.  And yet the poem also dares to speak of beauty and glory.

Sacrifice Charles Sims © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5581)
The war itself is neither beautiful nor glorious; however, the poem honours the men who have been caught up in it, its sacrificial victims. Their endurance in the face of unimaginable horrors transforms their suffering into something to be reverenced. The ugliness they have witnessed makes even the least of them “fairer than summer lilies.” As well, the poem subversively contrasts the wounded soldiers with the men of power and privilege who have ordered and organized the war.  The muddy brown khaki of the foot soldiers’ ragged uniforms is not transformed into snowy linen; their bloodstained and filthy garments put to shame the distant authorities who deck themselves in royal robes and snowy linen.

In his 1918 book The Hardest Part, Studdert Kennedy wrote, “Beside the wounded tattered soldier who totters down to this dressing station with one arm hanging loose, an earthly king in all his glory looks paltry and absurd.” In their agony, the injured men become Christ-like. They, too, are suffering servants, willing to lay down their lives for others, and in this act, they surpass in both beauty and virtue the kings and bishops who live in a sanitized world distant from the agonies of trench warfare.  The poem whispers that each soldier’s sacrifice is as precious in the sight of God as the death of his only son.

Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, states, “The sacrificial theme, in which each soldier becomes a type of the crucified Christ, is at the heart of countless Great War poems” (119). Many modern readers have dismissed such comparisons between soldiers and Christ as a religious cliché that was used both as an emotional crutch and as a propaganda tool. However, Dr. Michael Snape, Professor of Anglican Studies at Durham University cautions,

"We have a tendency to be condescending about our forebears. We're tempted to think we are cleverer than they were. Their religious beliefs seem to be part of their fateful and fatal naivety. But we shouldn't be so willing 100 years after the event to muscle in with our own interpretations of the war, to impose our standards and reactions on them."

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was forever changed by his experience at the front.  The war converted the military chaplain to pacifism, and in his 1923 book The Wicket Gate,  he wrote,

“for God, under any provocation whatsoever, hatred is impossible. He simply cannot hate. Nothing justifies it, not even this Crucifixion. This is the Goodness that would bring us back to realities. Nine-tenths of our wars and battles are fought in the land of dreams, with unreal people and unreal nations, which our hatred and our fear create. Germany hates and fears a monster called Britain, which does not exist; and Britain retaliates by hating and fearing an equally unreal Germany.”

Nearly one-hundred years later, his words are more relevant than ever; he cautions us against the temptation to demonize our enemies as we shape their identities out of our own hatred and fear. Studdert Kennedy’s poem “Solomon in All His Glory” continues to remind us of the sobering cost of war etched in the faces of wounded men as still we “see them coming, coming/ In their ragged broken line.”

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy