Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Memory

Armenians, WWI
War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.
                        -- British journalist Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War,” 1915.

Contemporary understandings of the First World War have been significantly shaped by the trench poets of the Western Front, particularly the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, the effects of World War I were felt far beyond the trenches; this modern, industrialized war also targeted civilians in long-range artillery bombardments, U-boat attacks, zeppelin raids, military reprisals, and trade blockades.  

While it is difficult to precisely account for deaths in the First World War, an estimated 11 million men who served in the military or in military support roles died.  What is less well known is the impact of the war on noncombatants: it is thought that between 6.5 and 7 million civilians died as a result of the war.  These deaths include those who were executed or killed in military actions, as well as those who were the victims of genocide, famine, and disease that were directly related to the war (the statistic does not include those who died as a result of the Spanish flu, the Russian Revolution, or the Turkish War of Independence).  While many know that nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Somme, few are aware that an estimated 30,000 Serbian civilians were executed by Austro-Hungarian forces; nearly 250,000 civilians died in Poland due to famine and disease, and another 300,000 in France – both numbers dwarfed by the 730,000 civilians who perished in Russia as a result of starvation and disease attributed to the conflict.*

The voices of noncombatants and women have often been marginalized in relating the subject and pity of The Great War.  Margaret Sackville’s poem “A Memory” turns its gaze on the civilians whose tragedies blur the boundaries between the war and the home front.   

Night Bombing, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2994)
A Memory

There was no sound at all, no crying in the village,
Nothing you would count as sound, that is, after the shells;
Only behind a wall the low sobbing of women,
The creaking of a door, a lost dog — nothing else.

Silence which might be felt, no pity in the silence,
Horrible, soft like blood, down all the blood-stained ways;
In the middle of the street two corpses lie unburied,
And a bayoneted woman stares in the market-place.

Humble and ruined folk — for these no pride of conquest,
Their only prayer: "O! Lord, give us our daily bread!"
Not by the battle fires, the shrapnel are we haunted;
Who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead? 
                         --Margaret Sackville

The poem opens on a scene of unnatural quiet. There is neither pity nor mercy in the stillness, but rather a palpable silence, a dense emptiness that bears the weight of absence and loss.  If the silence is soft, it is soft like blood that pools under a corpse. This is a tense quiet; it vibrates with stifled sobs and silent screams as an onlooker stares at bodies torn open and a world ripped apart. 

The troops and the violence have passed on, leaving in their wake the blankness of death and shock. The unburied bodies are not those of soldiers nor the dead of No Man’s Land, but the “humble and ruined folk” whose bodies sprawl unnaturally in the marketplace and lie in the middle of a village street. There has been shellfire, but not all the violence has been delivered anonymously from a safe distance: a woman has been bayoneted -- killed at arm’s length by a soldier.  Her body stares sightlessly at the sky. 

Serbian executions
The war has spilled out beyond its boundaries, and the memory of this “still life” village has the quality of a horrific wound: grotesque, unreal, and unforgettable. And yet, in grim irony, these dead have been largely forgotten.  The poem’s last line asks, “Who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead?” While it is a rhetorical question, most centenary commemorations of the First World War seek to remember in ceremonies, cemeteries, poems, and public memorials the military men who were killed.  Much less often do we remember the civilians who died, all those who, as described in another Sackville poem, “Quietly… lie beneath your armies’ feet.”**
*For an overview on the human cost of the war, see “World War I Casualties.”
**From Sackville’s poem “Victory.” For other poems on the war’s effect on civilians, see Margaret Widdemer’s “Homes,” Maria Benneman’s “Visé,” and May Sinclair’s “After the Retreat.”  Marian Allen’s “And what is war?” also uses the image of a door ajar in the wind to suggest the haunted quality of empty homes and villages.

Salonica refugees, WWI

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Out in No Man's Land

James Reese Europe & Harlem Hellfighters 369th Regt. band
Who would think that little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it?
....I sometimes think if the Kaiser ever heard a good syncopated melody he would not take himself so seriously.[i]
            --Noble Sissle, drum major of the Harlem Hellfighters regimental band 

James Reese Europe (more commonly known as “Jim Europe”) was the first black bandleader to record in the United States and the first to conduct a black orchestra performing ragtime/jazz music on the concert stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.  He was also the first black American officer to enter the trenches of the First World War, the first to lead troops in combat in the war, and the first black American to be given a public funeral in New York City.  And yet James Reese Europe is virtually unknown today, both for his contributions to music and for his service in the First World War.

In 1916, before the United States entered the war, Jim Europe joined the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, explaining to a friend, “there has never been such an organization of Negro men that will bring together all classes of men for a common good. And our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community.”[ii]

Europe was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard in December of 1916, and when the US entered the war, his regiment (later known as the 369th or “Harlem Hellfighters”) was assigned to the 92nd Division, one of only two black military divisions that the segregated U.S. Army allowed to participate in combat.[iii]

He was trained as a machine-gunner, but because Europe was one of the most popular bandleaders in America before the war, he was also charged with forming the best military band in the U.S. Army.[iv] Recruiting musicians from New York, Chicago, and Puerto Rico, he put together a military band that some described as the best in the world.[v] It is estimated that the Harlem Hellfighters regimental band traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for foreign dignitaries and military commanders, wounded soldiers in hospitals, troops on recreational leave, French citizens, and American Army Headquarters in Paris.
Europe is on the right

In between concerts, Lieutenant Europe was assigned to machine gun duty in the trenches on the Western Front. Charles Welton, writing for the New York Age, said that in addition to Europe “sowing jazz selections over the agricultural terrain and bunching bits of it in the cantons en route,” the officer also “did solo work with a machine gun forty times heavier than a trombone, and actually got it working in syncopated time.”[vi]

In the spring of 1918, Europe participated in a French raid on German trenches. He described the night raid to Noble Sissle, his friend and drum major of the Harlem Hellfighters' regimental band.  Europe’s description is rich with the sounds of the war as he remembered the din of artillery shells whirring overhead that sounded “like a thousand pheasants,” the exploding shrapnel “hizzing hither and thither,” the crack of an officer’s pistol firing a red flare from his Very pistol, and “the excited yelling of our men, as they darted first up one trench and down another, bombarding every nook and corner with hand grenades.” Europe told Sissle, “I found everything last night that I ever heard existed out there.”[vii] 

Injured in a gas attack just weeks later, Europe used his time in the hospital to compose music; among the songs he wrote while recuperating was “On Patrol in No Man’s Land.”[viii]  You can listen to the 1919 recording of the song here. 

On Patrol in No Man’s Land

What the time? Nine?
Fall in line
Alright, boys, now take it slow
Are you ready? Steady!
Very good, Eddie.
Over the top, let's go
Quiet, lie it, else you'll start a riot
Keep your proper distance, follow 'long
Cover, brother, and when you see me hover
Obey my orders and you won't go wrong

There's a Minenwerfer*coming --                               mortar shell
look out (bang!)
Hear that roar (bang!), there's one more (bang!)
Stand fast, there's a Very light*                                   flare gun
Don't gasp or they'll find you all right
Don't start to bombing with those hand grenades
There's a machine gun, holy spades!
Alert, gas! Put on your mask
Adjust it correctly and hurry up fast
There's a rocket from the Boche* barrage                   derogatory term for Germans
Down, hug the ground,
close as you can, don't stand
Creep and crawl, follow me, that's all

What do you hear? Nothing near
Don't fear, all is clear
That's the life of a stroll
When you take a patrol
Out in No Man's Land
Ain't it grand?
Out in No Man's Land
            --James Reese Europe

The song was recorded on the Pathé label by Jim Europe and members of the 369th Infantry Hellfighters band in March 1919, shortly after they returned from the war.  It’s probable that the composition had been performed in France: with band instruments simulating the sounds of machine gun fire, artillery explosions, and gas raid sirens, the song communicates the danger of battle while assuring its listeners that action on the front lines is a grand adventure not to be missed.

Advertisements for the recording included personal testimonials:
One of the boys in our office went to war.  On his return I asked him what American effort most impressed him and he answered JIM (Lieut.) EUROPE’S BAND.  He said that the French and British bands would play and one would say to himself, “what beautiful music!” But when Europe’s band came along no one, whatever his race, could keep still. There was that pep, that something of life and animation that made everybody want to do something.[ix]

Lt. James R. Europe
Before leaving for the war, John Love, personal secretary to the wealthy Wanamaker family of Philadelphia and a professional acquaintance of Europe, had tried to dissuade him from overseas service. In the summer of 1917, Europe had undergone emergency surgery for health complications related to Grave’s Disease, and Love argued that Europe would be entitled to a medical exemption. Jim Europe replied, “if I could, I would not. My country calls me and I must answer; and if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.”[x]

Tragically, in early May of 1919, just months after the New York City Homecoming Parade, Jim Europe was killed backstage during a concert in Boston by a disgruntled musician who was later declared mentally unfit to stand trial. Notable jazz musician Eubie Blake was Jim Europe’s business partner and friend. Later in life, as he recalled the legacy of James Reese Europe, Blake said, 

People don’t realize yet today what we lost when we lost Jim Europe. He was the savior of Negro musicians. He was in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. I met all three of them. Before Europe, Negro musicians were just like wandering minstrels…. Before Jim, they weren’t even supposed to be human beings.  Jim Europe changed all that.  He made a profession for us out of music. All of that we owe to Jim. If only people would realize it.[xi]

[i] Quoted in Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War (1919), by Emmet J. Scott, p. 309.
[ii] Noble Sissle’s Memoirs of Lieutenant ‘Jim’ Europe, quoted in Reid Badger’s excellent biography of James Reese Europe, A Life in Ragtime, 1995, p. 142.
[iii] For more information, see the article “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI” by Jami Bryan.
[iv] Badger, A Life in Ragtime, p. 143.
[v] New York Times, May 12, 1919, cited in Badger, A Life in Ragtime, p. 7.
[vi] Quoted in Scott’s Official History, p. 306.
[vii] Sissle’s Memoirs, cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, pp. 181-182.
[viii] The sheet music credits the song to James Europe, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake. Blake has said he had no part in writing the music but was credited for the song because “because that’s the kind of partners they were.” Sissle’s memoir on Europe’s life recounts visiting Jim Europe in the hospital and hearing Europe’s greeting: “Gee, I am glad to see you boys! Sissle, here’s a wonderful idea for a song that just came to me, in fact it was [from the] experience that I had last night during the bombardment that nearly knocked me out.” Cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, p. 187.
[ix] Talking Machine World, June 15, 1919.  Cited in Tim Brooks’ Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, p. 285.
[x] From John Love’s letter to Noble Sissle dated 28 January, 1920 and included in Sissle’s Memoirs. Cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, p. 154.
[xi] From Eubie Blake, by Al Rose. Cited in Brooks’ Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, p. 291.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter Warfare

Snow covered ruins on the Western Front,  WFC Holden 1919
© IWM ART 17281
War on the Western Front had always been a grim affair, but the conditions in winter were particularly brutal. Writing home to his wife, Rowland Feilding tells of what the troops endured:

The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks;— that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.*

Soldier and poet Edgell Rickword also wrote of the merciless conditions in his poem “Winter Warfare.”

Winter Warfare

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
    (Tabs of rime and spurs of ice),
Stiffened all where he did glare,
    Horses, men, and lice.

Visited a forward post,
    Left them burning, ear to foot;
Fingers stuck to biting steel,
    Toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
    Turned the wire to fleecy wool,
Iron stakes to sugar sticks
    Snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
    Saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kälte, Colonel Cold,
    Gaunt, in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved
    Glassy eyed, with glinting heel
Stabbing those who lingered there
    Torn by screaming steel.

As men huddle in their trenches, desperate to find warmth in the bone-chilling night, two gleaming figures are seen brazenly marching up the line. They harry the forward observation posts, stalk boldly into No Man’s Land, and menace the men at the front with stabbing knives of frost and ice. The mythic figures of Colonel Cold and Hauptmann Kalte (literally, “Captain Cold” in German) heartlessly torture men on both sides of the Front.

They appear as nightmarish visions of death, gaunt and skeletal, and their glassy eyes betray no human feeling. No one is spared, neither horses, lice, nor men, as the icy commanders leave in their wake toes blackened with frostbite and the searing pain of fingers painfully fused to rifle barrels. While there may be a stern beauty in barbed wire that is frosted like fleecy wool or iron stakes that glisten like sugar sticks, it is a cruel and brittle splendor. 

This is a severe world that is inhospitable to warmth and tender emotions, for in addition to enduring the cold, as the last verse reveals, the men must helplessly watch their comrades who lie wounded between the lines, “torn by screaming steel,” slowly freeze to death. German and British soldiers are united in this: their most implacable enemy is the cold.

Rickword wasn’t assigned to the Western Front until January of 1918; the men who were at the front in the early months of 1917 endured one of the harshest winters of the war. The ground was frozen solid; men slept in their clothing with their boots on under frozen blankets, falling victim to frostbite and trench foot. British soldier Clifford Lane remembers, “The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact, the only time. I didn’t actually cry, but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire.”**

In the midst of these agonizing conditions, one thing that stands out is the courage and endurance of the men who managed to survive.  In another poem, Rickword praised that tenacious spirit that could jest in the midst of war:

In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak...

*Rowland Feilding, letter dated 14 December 1916 from War Letters to a Wife.
**From Podcast 25: Winter 1916-1917, Imperial War Museum’s Voices of the First World War.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

An unlikely soldier

 Gerald Caldwell Siordet was an unlikely soldier. Tall and very thin, he was an aspiring artist, critic, and poet. Friends with John Singer Sargent, Glyn Philpot, and William Morris’s wife, Jane, Siordet also tutored the young Aldous Huxley, preparing him for entry to Oxford. And yet in September of 1914, Siordet volunteered as a soldier, leaving behind his artistic ambitions and his work as an ivories cataloguer at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Balliol College at Oxford, Siordet’s alma mater, wrote that although he “seemed little suited, either in physique or in temperament, for a soldier’s life, he was probably happier as a soldier than he had ever been before. Both in the poems which he wrote during this period, and in the drawings which were found in his notebooks, there is evidence to show how finely his mind was touched by his new experience.”  

One of those poems was published in the London Times 30 November 1915, under the pen name Gerald Caldwell (I have added stanza breaks in the copy below).

To the Dead

Since in the days that may not come again

The sun has shone for us on English fields,
Since we have marked the years with thanksgiving,
Nor been ungrateful for the loveliness
Which is our England, then tho' we walk no more
The woods together, lie in the grass no more,
For us the long grass blows, the woods are green,
For us the valleys smile, the streams are bright,
For us the kind sun still is comfortable
And the birds sing; and since your feet and mine 

Have trod the lanes together, climbed the hills,
Then in the lanes and on the little hills
Siordet and other officers enroute to Mesopotamia
Our feet are beautiful for evermore.

And you — O if I call you, you will come,
Most loved, most lovely faces of my friends
Who are so safely housed within my heart,
So parcel of this blessed spirit land
Which is my own heart's England, so possest
Of all its ways to walk familiarly
And be at home, that I can count on you,
Loving you so, being loved, to wait for me,
So may I turn me in and by some sweet
Remembered pathway find you once again.
Then we can walk together, I with you,
Or you, or you along some quiet road,
And talk the foolish, old, forgivable talk,
And laugh together; you will turn your head,
Look as you used to look, speak as you spoke,
My friend to me, and I your friend to you.

Only when at the last, by some cross-road,
On the Road to Emmaus, Duccio
Our longer shadows, falling on the grass,
Turn us back homeward, and the setting sun
Shines like a golden glory round your head,
There will be something sudden and strange in you.
Then you will lean, and look into my eyes,
And I shall see the bright wound at your side,
And feel the new blood flowing to my heart,
Your blood, beloved, flowing to my heart,
And I shall hear you speaking in my ear—
O not the old, forgivable, foolish talk,
But flames, and exaltations, and desires,
But hopes, and comprehensions, and resolves,
But holy, incommunicable things,
That like immortal birds sing in my breast,
And springing from a fire of sacrifice,
Beat with bright wings about the throne of God.
                                    --Gerald Caldwell Siordet

The poem begins with remembered days of idyllic happiness in the English countryside. And though those days may never return, like Wordsworth’s poem on Tintern Abbey, Siordet’s “To the Dead” affirms that landscapes of memory are doubly precious for having been shared with a friend and for the bygone days that they recall.  Men who once wandered rural lanes have died and will never return, but the valleys, woods, and streams are beautiful still, hallowed by memory and by love.  

And whether encased in muddy boots or naked in death, the feet of the dead are also “beautiful forever.” Siordet's poem echoes with religious references, this one from Isaiah 52:7 and Romans 10:15: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace.”

Christ and the disciples at Emmaus by Dagnan-Bouveret
Photo by Moira Burke
What are the good tidings that the dead carry? The speaker of the poem trustfully says to those who have died, “if I call you, you will come.” The separation is not permanent. Although they have departed from this life and journeyed ahead, the dead are waiting for those who have loved them until “by some sweet/ Remembered pathway [I] find you once again.”

Once reunited, the men will again find ease in the return of familiar companionship.  At first, the poet imagines that all will be as it once was: there will be shared laughter and “foolish, old, forgivable talk.” Yet as shadows lengthen and night falls, the poem pictures a scene that echoes the story of Christ’s friends on the road to Emmaus immediately after His crucifixion. Although the risen Christ walked and talked with the two disciples, “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:16) until in a moment of epiphany as Christ broke bread, they realized the truth of the resurrection: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road?” (Luke 24: 32-33).

In Siordet’s “To the Dead,” the setting sun casts a halo around the head of his fallen comrade, causing the speaker of the poem to behold “something sudden and strange in his friend. Leaning close, the dead companion reveals his wounded side (like Christ’s demonstration to the doubting Thomas), and with this revelation, the speaker now hears whispered in his ear not the old foolish talk of youth, but “holy, incommunicable things.” The voice of the dead speaks in “flames and exaltations,” and “like immortal birds,” the good news sings in the speaker’s breast as new blood beats in his heart.  The poem’s allusions to the Holy Spirit and to the tongues of fire that appeared at Pentecost express the wonder of the resurrection and echo the promise of life eternal.

Basra Memorial, Iraq
Siordet was wounded at the Somme and awarded a Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” in a failed attack that killed one of his closest friends, Geoffrey Smith. Asked to contribute to a memorial book for Smith, Siordet asked that his tribute begin with a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:7): “In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble.” Siordet explained that he had chosen the verse “rather selfishly, because no one but I will really know their significance in his connexion; but in the last moments, before he was hit, while he was running down the line, and came into the shell-hole where I was, he did "shine" with all the grace and keeness of excitement and concentration.”

After recovering from his own injuries of the Somme, Siordet joined the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force in January 1917. He died on February 9, 1917, leading an attack on the Turkish position near Kut-al-Amara. His body was never recovered.  

Nearly all who knew him commented on Siordet's humility and generous spirit, and a fellow officer described him as "one of the bravest men I have known, especially so as this whole ghastly business was possibly more abhorrent to him even than it is to the rest of us."  His name is just one of over forty thousand listed on the Basra Memorial in Iraq, a memorial that remembers British and Commonwealth soldiers of the First World War who died “in the operations in Mesopotamia from the Autumn of 1914 to the end of August 1921 and whose graves are not known.”*  

Siordet's name at Basra, photo 2009
*Soldier and poet J. Howard Stables (The Sorrow that Whistled) is also commemorated at the Basra Memorial.