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



  1. Great blog post. Really enjoyed stumbling over this.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ed. I'll be putting up a new post once a week from now until the centenary of the Armistice, 11 November, 1918. Serendipitous stumblers always welcome!

  2. Moving and haunting poem. Appreciated your annotations.

    1. Thanks very much for reading and responding.

  3. Thanks for an excellent post on a talented voice from the Great War. Will be following your future posts with interest.