Friday, April 21, 2017

Only a cog

British munitions factory, Chilwell
It is easy to forget the sheer scale of the Great War. The numbers tell the tale: over 32 million artillery shells were fired during the battle of Verdun; over 3,000 artillery guns were used by the Allies during the Third Battle of Ypres; during the battle of High Wood on August 24, 1916, it is estimated that 10 British machine guns fired over 1 million rounds in 12 hours.  The human toll was also staggering: over 35 million were killed or wounded, and on average, 230 soldiers died each hour of every day during a conflict that lasted over four years.*

Men were dwarfed by the scale of a war such as the world had never seen before. Gilbert Frankau’s poem “Ammunition Column” considers one man’s place in a modern, industrial war.

Ammunition Column

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a link of an endless chain:
And the rounds are drawn, and the rounds are fired, and the empties return again;
Railroad, lorry, and limber; battery, column, and park;
To the shelf where the set fuse waits the breech, from the quay where the shells embark.
We have watered and fed, and eaten our beef; the long dull day drags by.
As I sit here watching our “Archibalds”** strafing an empty sky;
Puff and flash on the far-off blue round the speck one guesses the plane—

Smoke and spark of the gun-machine that is fed by the endless chain.
The Great Black Cloud (detail), by Kerr Eby 

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a little link in the chain,
Waiting a word from the wagon-lines that the guns are hungry again:—

Column-wagon to battery-wagon, and battery-wagon to gun;
To the loader kneeling 'twixt trail and wheel from the shops where the steam-lathes run.
There's a lone mule braying against the line where the mud cakes fetlock-deep!
There's a lone soul humming a hint of a song in the barn where the drivers sleep;
And I hear the pash of the orderly's horse as he canters him down the lane—

Another cog in the gun-machine, a link in the selfsame chain.

I am only a cog in a giant machine, but a vital link in the chain;
And the Captain has sent from the wagon-line to fill his wagons again;—

From wagon-limber to gunpit dump; from loader's forearm at breech,
To the working-party that melts away when the shrapnel bullets screech.

So the restless section pulls out once more in column of route from the right,
At the tail of a blood-red afternoon; so the flux of another night
Bears back the wagons we fill at dawn to the sleeping column again . . .
Cog on cog in the gun-machine, link on link in the chain!

In Frankau’s poem, the war has taken on a monstrous life of its own: the guns are insatiably hungry and must be fed. The poem’s regular meter sounds like a drumbeat, signaling the inevitability of the conflict’s relentless advance.
Men are reduced to machine parts as they work to satisfy the appetite of the war and its endless demand for ammunition. Everything and everyone appears small and subservient to the Great War.  The mule, the horse, the lone soul humming song: all are merely links and cogs in the chain of mechanized killing.  The grim irony is that in stoking the engines of war and prolonging its life, the men ensure that the killing will continue.  War feeds on human lives. 

Gilbert Frankau joined the British Army shortly after the war began in 1914 and was transferred to the Royal Field artillery in early 1915.  He fought at Loos, Ypres, and the Somme, but left the army “on account of ill-health contracted on active service” in February of 1918.†

Frankau is sometimes omitted from collections of war poetry for being “politically dubious.” WWI scholar Tim Kendall notes that the writer “hated the Germans with an intensity matched only by his master, Rudyard Kipling.”††  And yet Ferenc Békássy, a Hungarian soldier fighting for Germany’s ally, shared Frankau’s sense of the way in which the war was making all men into replaceable parts. In his poem “1914,” Békássy also protested “that he was not a unit, a pawn whose place can be filled.”  
*Scott Addington, The Great War 100, The History Press, 2014.
**Anti-aircraft fire. This link explains that the term likely originated from a music hall song. 
London Gazette, 19 February 1918. 
††Tim Kendall, “Gilbert Frankau” on the blog War Poetry. 

1 comment:

  1. This world has seen and known far too many Cities of Fear. These days Aleppo and Mosul are all over the place (and our hearts). One hundred years ago Frankau's City of Fear was our beloved and deplored Ypres, my home from home.