Thursday, January 26, 2017

Eastern Front

Austrians on the Eastern Front, Library of Congress
In his history of the First World War, Winston Churchill titled his account of the battles fought on the Eastern Front The Unknown War.  Largely forgotten in English-speaking countries, the war on the Eastern Front was as strategically important and as deadly as the battles waged in the West.  On the Eastern Front, even conservative estimates state that over 3.5 million soldiers died and as many as 2 million civilians.

Just months after the war began in the early autumn of 1914, Georg Trakl, a young Austrian poet and pharmacist, joined the Austro-Hungarian army as a medical officer and was posted to the Austro-Hungarian province of Galacia (what is today part of the Ukraine and Poland). Even before the war, Trakl had battled drug addiction and suicidal tendencies.  What he witnessed on the Eastern Front in Galacia inspired some of the most haunted poetry of the war.

Eastern Front                                                                           Im Osten

The wrath of the people is dark,                                  Den wilden Orgeln des Wintersturms
Like the wild organ notes of winter storm,                  Gleicht der Volkes finstrer Zorn,
The battle’s crimson wave, a naked                             Die purpurne Woge der Schlacht,
Forest of stars.                                                              Entlaubter Sterne.

With ravaged brows, with silver arms                         Mit zerbrochnen Brauen, silbernen Armen
To dying soldiers night comes beckoning.                  Winkt sterbenden Soldaten die Nacht.
In the shade of the autumn ash                                    Im Schatten der herbstlichen Esche
Ghosts of the fallen are sighing.                                  Seufzen die Geister der Erschlagenen.

Thorny wilderness girdles the town about.                 Dornige Wildnis umgürtet die Stadt.
From bloody doorsteps the moon                               Von blutenden Stufen jagt der Mond
Chases terrified women.                                              Die erschrockenen Frauen.
Wild wolves have poured through the gates.              Wilde Wölfe brachen durchs Tor.
            (trans. Christopher Middleton)

In his book on Trakl’s poetry, James Wright says, “patience is the clue to the understanding of Trakl’s poems. One does not so much read them as explore them. They are not objects which he constructed, but quiet places at the edge of a dark forest where one has to sit still for a long time and listen very carefully.”*

Russian hospital on the Eastern Front, Library of Congress
Listening to the poem, one hears the quiet whimper of fear in the “wild organ notes of winter storm.” The world is shot through with dark anger, and the dim light of moon and stars illuminates scenes of horror: towns overrun by predators, bloody doorsteps, the screams of terrified women, and ghosts of the fallen.  Trakl’s poetry speaks of “luminous terror,”† and if “Eastern Front” conveys a nightmarish, dream-like commentary on the war, Trakl was most likely writing from personal experience.   

Georg Trakl
It is believed that Trakl wrote the poem shortly following the battle of Grodek. In the chaotic aftermath of the carnage, he had been assigned to care for nearly a hundred critically injured soldiers crowded into a barn. Alone with the wounded and dying, as night fell Trakl heard a shot and found that one of the sufferers had shot himself in the head. Seeking to escape the gruesome scene, he fled outside, only to be confronted with the swinging corpses of civilians hanging from the trees.  Shortly after, in early October of 1914, Trakl himself attempted suicide. He was diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia) and sent to a hospital near Krakow.  Three weeks later, on November 3, 1914, Trakl fatally overdosed on cocaine. 

In a letter written near the end of his short life, Trakl wrote, “It is a nameless unhappiness when one’s world breaks in two.”†† In “Eastern Front” and other poems, Trakl struggles to communicate the unhappiness that cannot be named, the deep sorrows of a world torn apart by war.

*Twenty Poems of George Trakl, James Wright and Robert Bly, p. 4.
†“Review: To the Silenced, Selected Poems of Georg Trakl,” Stephen Watts.
††Quoted in 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, Thomas Harrison, p. 45


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Rain on your old tin hat

John Hunter Wickersham

“The A.E.F. was about the most sentimental outfit that ever lived.  Most of it—so it seemed to anyone who served on the staff of The Stars and Stripes—wrote poetry.  All of it read poetry.”                                                            --John T. Winterich, Yanks: A.E.F. Verse, 1919

While many American Doughboys of the First World War were poets, only 119 were awarded America’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Lt. John Hunter Wickersham was both a poet and a CMH hero. 

Manual High School Memorial
In the first week of September 1918, American forces prepared to attack German positions in the St. Mihiel sector of northeastern France. The historian of the 353rd Regiment, 89th Division, recalled, “Each day had brought increasing signs of ‘something doin’ in the near future….Big guns were being pulled into place day and night….At dusk [Sept 11th] the different outfits began to move to their jumping off places.  The roads were crowded with men….It was a dark night; a cold rain was falling—now a drizzle, now a downpour; the bottom of the trenches held water ankle deep.”

Perhaps crouched in a mud-filled trench waiting for H-Hour (the term was first used in the battle), John Wickersham wrote his last letter home. In the note to his mother, he included a poem, most probably untitled. By the time his mother received his letter, her son was dead. The poem first appeared in a small Oregon newspaper the St. Helen’s Mist on 13 December, 1918. The paper noted that the author had been killed in battle and gave it the title “Its Patter Touches the Heart”; Wickersham's aunt and uncle had shared the poem. In later anthologies, the poem appears as “Raindrops on your old tin hat.”

The mist hangs low and quiet on a ragged line of hills,
There's a whispering of wind across the flat,
You'd be feeling kind of lonesome if it wasn't for one thing--
The patter of the raindrops on your old tin hat.

An' you just can't help a-figuring--sitting there alone--
About this war and hero stuff and that,
And you wonder if they haven't sort of got things twisted up,
While the rain keeps up its patter on your old tin hat.
Rain Lake Zillebeke, Paul Nash

When you step off with the outfit to do your little bit,
You're simply doing what you're s'posed to do--
And you don't take time to figure what you gain or what you lose,
It's the spirit of the game that brings you through.

But back at home she's waiting, writing cheerful little notes,
And every night she offers up a prayer
And just keeps on a-hoping that her soldier boy is safe--
The mother of the boy who's over there.

And, fellows, she's the hero of this great big ugly war,
And her prayer is on that wind across the flat,
And don't you reckon maybe it's her tears, and not the rain,
That's keeping up the patter on your old tin hat?

Most likely written shortly before the battle, Wickersham’s poem addresses his fellow soldiers who wait with him in the rain. Confronting the likelihood of their own imminent deaths, the poem questions “this great big ugly war.” Contemplating heroism and the killing to come, it concludes, “you wonder if they haven’t sort of got things twisted up.”

Modestly, the poet states that as the soldiers “step off” together, each contributes his “little bit” as they simply do “what you’re s’posed to do.” As they attack under fire from the enemy’s machine guns and artillery, there will be no time to consider why they are fighting or what might be gained or lost. Instead, the men give themselves over to “the spirit of the game” and the camaraderie of their units. They play together and fight for one another. 

And on the eve of battle, thoughts inevitably turn to home. Thousands of miles away, a mother waits in the heartland of America. She prays every night for her son and masks her worries and fear in “writing cheerful little notes.” Wickersham's poem, speaking to soldiers who endure rain, cold and ankle-deep mud, proclaims that the loved ones who anxiously wait are the real heroes. 

Despite the ugliness of the war, the poet hears whispered on the wind the prayers of the soldiers’ loved ones, and the sound of the steady rain, rather than joining the men in misery, connects them with the tears of those who pray for their return. Wickersham was not one of those who made it home. 

The historian of the 353rd Infantry Regiment writes of the events of September 12, 1918, the morning of the attack:

89th Division in France
            The Second Battalion, scheduled to make the assault on the following morning, moved during the night from the support positions along St. Jean-Noviant road to the jump-off line out in “No Man’s Land.” There crouched down in the mud-filled trenches with thousands of fellow Americans, we waited for the Zero hour.  All surplus clothing except raincoats had been stored and it seemed that Zero was upon us while we shivered and waited for the hour. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and runners continued to be busy.  In fact, there seemed to be plenty for everyone to do. It was impossible to remember all the instructions. One warning, however, struck fast—“No one goes to the rear.”
            … At exactly one o’clock the preparatory bombardment began.  More than a million rounds of ammunition were consumed in the artillery preparation which lasted from 1 am to 5 am.  All along the line the sky was lit up with flashes of heavy-caliber guns, distributed in depth for almost ten kilometers to the rear. In the intermissions between deafening explosions could be heard the puttering of machine guns.
            [Sept 12th]…Some losses occurred, too, from our own artillery.  “Follow the barrage,” were the orders. As soon as the barrage had lifted from an objective ahead the men moved up, not realizing that the artillery would roll back almost to their own position before moving forward again to the next objective. As a result, Lieutenant Shaw was the victim of one of our own shells a minute after he had led his platoon out, but his example carried the men forward without their commander and in spite of many losses.  While Lieutenant Wickersham was advancing with his platoon, a shell burst at his feet and threw him into the air with four mortal wounds.  He dressed the wounds of his orderly, improvised a tourniquet for his own thigh and then ordered the advance to continue.  Although weakened by the loss of blood, he moved on with his pistol in his left hand until he fell and died before aid could be administered to him.  Everywhere action was heroic.  Resistance and difficulties only brought it into the sublime.”
St Mihiel cemetery, photo by Douglas Heimbigner

By the end of the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive, the 353rd had lost nearly 250 men, 39 having “made the supreme sacrifice.” For his actions on September 12th, John Hunter Wickersham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He is buried in France at St. Mihiel cemetery.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Pure Peace

Cadair Idris, Wales (photo by Steve Rabone)
Few people know of the soldier Ellis Evans; he is better known by his Welsh bardic name, Hedd Wyn. The phrase can be translated to mean white, pure or blessed peace, and it was inspired by the landscape of Evans’ home, the misty valleys of Meirionnydd.

Pilckem Ridge © IWM (Q 5730) 
In early 1917 following the introduction of mandatory military conscription, Ellis Evans reluctantly joined the British army. He left the family farm and his shepherding duties to volunteer in place of a younger brother (he was the oldest of eleven children). Just months after he entered the infantry, his unit - the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers - was sent to the Western Front to join what became known as the Battle of Passchendaele. 

Ellis Evans was killed on 31 July 1917* at Pilckem Ridge; less than six weeks later, on 6 September 1917, Hedd Wyn was announced as the winner of the Welsh National Eisteddfod’s prestigious poetry chair. When presenters learned that the poet had been killed in Flanders, they draped the chair in black.  Since then, the honour has been referred to as The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair.        

Here is Hedd Wyn’s poem “War”:  

Rhyfel (in original Welsh)                                     War (translated by Gillian Clarke)

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.

When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.

Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.

The poem can be heard here, read in Welsh by A.Z. Foreman.                                              

"Independence calls for our bravest men"
Hauntingly, the poem weaves together nature, faith, and war in a lament not only for the dead, but for all who live in a time of war.  In this time of bitterness and woe, God “declines beyond the seas,” or as AZ Foreman’s translation suggests “God is setting like the sun.” And believing that God is irrelevant, absent, or powerless, humans rush to usurp His authority and impose their violent will upon the world. The vision resembles that expressed by W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”: chaos reigns, “the centre cannot hold,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”  In Louis Flint Ceci’s translation of the first stanza of Hedd Wynn’s poem, “all authority's absurd /When God himself fades from the scene.”

In a world gone wrong, the burdens of death and suffering fall disproportionately upon the poor, and song itself has been silenced. The Biblical allusion to Psalms 137: 1-4 underpins the lament, and the poem resonates with ancient grief:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land? (KJV)

As during the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, men have been carried away captive and wasted by war. How can a poet’s voice sing in a strange land? Ellis Evans, like others who had been ordered to France, despairs at having left behind the traditional guiding melodies of nature and of faith. In all too short a time, he, too, will hang his silent harp on the willows. The wind sighs with dirges of the dead, and the ballads of boys slain “blow on the wind” as their blood falls like rain. 

During his brief time in France, Hedd Wyn wrote home, “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn't it?” He had arrived in France in June of 1917 -- he was dead by the end of the next month. Simon Jones, a member of his company who survived, recalled in a 1975 interview,

We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him... I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that... He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt... He was dying, of course... There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack.

From the time he was young, Hedd Wyn had written poetry and dreamed of being awarded the National Eisteddfod chair. An anthology of his poetry, Cerddi'r Bugail (The Shepherd's Poems), was published posthumously in 1918, and the words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (The Chief Bard, Hedd Wyn) were added to his grave’s headstone.

Resistant to the war, Hedd Wyn most likely would not have wanted to be known as a war poet. His poetry can be found, however, in the cemeteries of the First World War in other men’s epitaphs. Lines from his poem Nid A'n Ango (Not forgotten)“Ei aberth nid a heibio / Ei wyneb annwyl nid a'n ango” (His sacrifice will not be passed over / His dear face will not be forgotten)  appear on at least six graves in Belgium and France, and a line from his poem Beddargraff Milwr o Drawsfynydd (Epitaph for a Soldier from Trawsfynydd) appears on a grave at Erquinghem: Gedy ar ol, oes wen, fer, dlos, anfarwol” (He leaves behind a blessed, short, beautiful, immortal life).*

Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn) 
* Along with 31,000 Allied soldiers, the Irish poet of the blackbirds, Francis Ledwidge, was also killed that day and he, too, is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery. Ledwidge’s poem by the same title, “War,” can be read here.

**Thanks to the discussion on The Great War Forum for this information.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Epiphany Vision

The Last Message, William Hatherell
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 5234)
As the tragic year of the Somme and Verdun was drawing to a close, British soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary, “The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden” (22 December 1916). 

British V.A.D. nurse Mary-Adair Macdonald knew first-hand of the physical and emotional burdens born by the wounded of the war and those who cared for them. Her poem “Epiphany Vision” reimagines the Bethlehem stable as a hospital ward, while the kings who brought gifts to the Christ child are re-seen as the broken men of the war.

Epiphany Vision (In the Ward)

This is the night of a Star.
Dusk grow window and wall;
A Cross unseen floats red o’er the wrack of war;
Silences fall
In the house where the wounded are.
Hospital ward

“Good-night to all!”
Then I pause awhile by the open door, and see
Their patient faces, pale through the blue smoke-rings,
On the night of Epiphany….
But who are these, who are changed utterly,
Wearing a look of Kings?

Brothers, whence do ye come?
Royal and still, what Star have ye looked upon?
--“From hill and valley, from many a city home
We came; we endured till the last of strength was gone,
Over the narrow sea.
But what of a Star? We have only fought for home
And babes on the mother’s knee.”
(Their silence saith.)

—Brothers, what do ye bring
To the Christ Whom Kings adored? —“We cannot tell.
We might have fashioned once some simple thing;
Once we were swift, who now are very slow;
We were skilled of hand, who bear the splint and the sling.
We gave no thought to Pain, in the year ago,
Who since have passed through Hell.
But what should we bring Him now—we, derelicts nigh past mending?’

(Frankincense, myrrh and gold;
Winds His choristers, worlds about His knee….
Hath He room at all in His awful Treasury
For the gifts our Kings unfold
That can ne’er be told?)

This is the night of a Star.
German Christmas card
This is the long road’s ending.
They are sleeping now; they have brought their warrior best
To the Lord their God Who made them;
And lo! He hath repaid them
With rest.—
This is the night of a Star.
The laugh that rings through torment, the ready jest,
Valor and youth, lost hope, and a myriad dreams
Splendidly given—
He hath taken up to the inmost heart of Heaven.
And now—while the night grows cold, and the ward-fire gleams—
You may guess the tender Smile as He walketh hidden
In the place where His Wise Ones are.
            --Mary-Adair Macdonald

Like the wise men from the East, the wounded soldiers have traveled far.  They have left the comforts of their homes to pursue a cause they thought noble. And marked by exhaustion, they too have spent long hours patiently observing the night sky, theirs lit by the flares of star shells bursting overhead. 

What can the wounded, these “derelicts nigh past mending” bring as gifts? Having lost their youth, speed, and skill to the blast of shells, the whine of machine gun fire, and the horrors found in No Man’s Land, what remains for these men to offer? They have sacrificed not only their dreams, but their very wholeness, all “splendidly given,” all forever gone. 

Yet for a moment as worlds slip and smoke rises as incense, this Epiphany vision reassures that all is not lost, but rather has been tenderly gathered by the Holy One to whom the gift was made. The wounded men’s hopes are preserved in “the inmost heart of Heaven,” and Christ walks hidden amongst their beds, bestowing tender smiles and blessings upon “His Wise Ones.” 

Detail of The Scottish Women's Hospital, by Nora-Neilson Gray
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3090)
As the poem proclaims, this is the night of the Star, and the men themselves outshine the stars in laughter that “rings through torment,” in the ready jests that conceal their pain, and in the valor with which they meet their ruin. 

Little is known of Mary-Adair Macdonald; she left her home in Lyndhurst, Hampshire to join the V.A.D. in September of 1915 and served until May of 1918 at Christchurch Red Cross Hospital, Hill House Hospital (Petersfield), and Burcote House Hospital (Abingdon). A small pamphlet of her poems was reprinted from the pages of the Spectator and dedicated to the nurses of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Empire who have “nourished the wounded and soothed many a dying soldier.” Her poems express a deep faith and a reverence for the suffering of the men in her care, while she describes the nurses of the First World War as “handmaids of your pain.