Thursday, June 29, 2017

So tired

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson
 via First World War Poetry Digital Archive,

By late June of 1917, the Great War had dragged on for nearly 1,070 days, and there had been more death and suffering than anyone could have imagined when it began in August of 1914.  Great Britain was approaching the first anniversary of the worst day in its military history: one year earlier, on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began; 19,240 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone. 

In late spring of 1917, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse Vera Brittain resigned from her duties and returned from Malta to nurse Victor Richardson, a close friend of her brother and of her dead fiancé, Roland Leighton. Together, the men were known as "the three Musketeers." Richardson had been blinded and disfigured from wounds received in an attack on Arras on April 9 of 1917; Vera was planning to marry him and serve as his caretaker for life. Before they were wed, his injuries worsened, and Victor Richardson died on June 9, 1917. Brittain’s short poem “Sic Transit” was written shortly after.*

Sic Transit
V.R., died of wounds, 2nd London General Hospital, Chelsea, June 9th, 1917

I am so tired.
The dying sun incarnadines the West,
And every window with its gold is fired,
And all I loved the best
Is gone, and every good that I desired
Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
Even the Highest whereto I aspired
Has vanished with the rest.
I am so tired.
            —London, June 1917

The poem’s title alludes to the Latin phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” (Thus passes the glory of the world), a reference to the fleeting brevity of life. Brittain’s abbreviated poem restricts itself to the use of only two repeated rhymes. While in films and video games, war is often portrayed as an adrenaline rush of action, “Sic Transit” aches with numb exhaustion.

Vera Brittain
The Great War fed on youth and dreams; it devoured hope and sapped energy. Victor Richardson was twenty-two when he died; Vera Brittain was twenty-three when she found herself mourning the  death of yet another friend killed in battle.  Shortly after learning of Victor’s injuries, she had recorded in her diary, “I no longer expect things to go well for me; I don’t know that I even ask that they shall. All I ask is that I may fulfil my own small weary part in this War in such a way as to be worthy of Them, who die & suffer pain.”**
*I am indebted to A Century Back for its insightful commentary on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem.
**Chronicle of Youth, excerpt from entry for April 18, 1917.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Going Over

WWI postcard: Douglas Tempest (British)
The First World War’s popular song, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,” may have been more accurate than is commonly realized, for when setting off to war, troubles often accompanied the soldiers. 
American troops making the transatlantic voyage to the Western Front traveled under threat of torpedo attack; the Tuscania was the first ship carrying American soldiers to be sunk. Struck by a German torpedo on February 5, 1918, the Tuscania sank in four hours with a loss of over 200 men.* 

Thanks to the escort of American and British destroyers, however, most American troop ships arrived safely in France, although many doughboys vividly remembered the misery of overcrowding and seasickness. 

Frank L. Armstrong’s Frenzies from France or the Nightmares of a Doughboy (1919) offers a humorous sketch of sailing to France. (For a different perspective, see “Transport” by John Allan Wyeth). 

Going Over

From Frenzies from France
I’m sure I never shall forget
That trip across the Briny.
I didn’t take it for my health
I went to get a ‘Heinie.
We had to sleep way down below,
Down where they keep the cattle.
That seemed to me an awful way
To ship men off to battle.

And when the boat began to rock
Those guys down there got sick.
I’ll tell the world that was some time
Let’s pass the subject quick.
The grub I couldn’t recommend
It didn’t seem appealing.
Might be because beneath my belt
I had a funny feeling.

Of all the trips I ever made,
That was about the worst.
And if they want this bird again,
They’ll have to catch him first.
                        —Frank L. Armstrong

I have found no certain information on Frank L. Armstrong, although Frenzies from France was privately published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A man by the same name is credited with writing the lyrics to the World War I song “Knitting,” dedicated to “the soldiers’ girls at home.”


*“The Sinking of the Tuscania,”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Anonymous stars

French soldier near Verdun, 1916
Napoleon Bonaparte is viewed as one of the greatest military commanders in French history.  Rising to power as an artillery officer during the French Revolution, he was promoted to general at the age of 24.  When crowned Emperor of France in 1804, he was only 35 years old.

Napoleon's sarcophagus, photo by Livioandronico2013 
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840, his remains were moved to Les Invalides in Paris, where a lavish sarcophagus was prepared beneath the grand Dome of the royal military chapel. The Emperor’s body lies inside six nested caskets: tin, mahogany, two of lead, ebony, and oak.  

During the First World War, American poet Dana Burnet wrote of visiting Bonaparte’s memorial in Paris. Contrasting Napoleon’s grandiose tomb with the unburied bodies of soldiers on the Western Front, Burnet challenges us to consider the nature of war and who bears its costs.  

Napoleon’s Tomb*

Through the great doors, where Paris flowed incessant,
Fell certain dimness….
A calm, immortal twilight mantling up
To the great dome, where painted triumph rides
High o’er the dust that once bestrode it all—
Nor ever fame had fairer firmament!
Then I went in, with Paris pressing slow,
And saw the long blue shadows folding down
Upon the casket of the Emperor.
A soldier in faded uniform
Stood close beside me. He was one of those
Who die and leave no lament on the wind…
And straightway gazing on him I beheld
Not death’s magnificence; not fame’s hushed tomb—
But grim Oblivion, and the fields of France!
And on some nameless hillside, where the night
Sets out wild flaming candles for the dead,
Innumerable corpses palely sprawled
Beneath the silent, cold, anonymous stars.
                        —Dana Burnet 

Amidst the glittering gold, granite, and marble of Napoleon’s tomb, the observer’s eye is drawn to the man standing near him: a poilu, the informal name given to infantry soldiers in the French Army. The soldier’s uniform is worn and faded from the years he has spent in battle, sleeping in uncovered trenches and slogging through mud.

The observer considers that when this man dies, none will mourn his passing; his death will “leave no lament on the wind.” The sight of the poilu gives way to a profound realization that is in stark contrast to the scene of Napoleon’s tomb: death is not magnificent, the battle is not glorious, but rather war leads only to grim Oblivion. 

Dome over Napoleon's Tomb,  photo by Livioandronico2013
The hillsides where men fought and died will remain nameless, and the common soldiers who earned the victory will be forgotten. The only homage given them will be the “wild flaming candles” – the lights of the anonymous stars that shine on the countless, nameless corpses. 

Following the Great War, in 1929 another French general was honored with burial under the Dome of Les Invalides.  The body of General Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander of the First World War, was buried near the tomb of Napoleon. 

*The version included here omits early sections of the original poem that describe the tomb in further detail.  The poem can be read in its entirety at this link, the online edition of Clarke’s A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American poems of the World War, 1914-1919.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Mascot Speaks

Unknown soldier with dog, WWI

A previous post on this blog (“The Trench Dog”) discussed the important role that animals played in the First World War.  A further testament to the comfort and companionship that dogs brought to the soldiers is the poem "The Mascot Speaks," published in March of 1919 in the Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper that described itself as “By and For the Soldiers of the A.E.F.” 

Written by an anonymous American soldier after the war had ended, the poem reminds us that the end of the war brought new hardships to the pets who had been adopted by the fighting men. 

The Mascot Speaks

They say I can’t go back with him,
They say we dogs are banned.
They told him that. They didn’t think
Unknown soldier with puppy
That I could understand.

I’ve had him pretty near a year,
Since I was just a pup.
I used to be a sort of bum,
And then – he picked me up.

We’ve slept together in the rain,
And snow, too, quite a lot.
Cold nights we kept each other warm,
Some days we ate—some not.

Once he went to the hospital.
I followed. They said, “No.”
He swore a lot and told the doc
Unless I stayed, he’d go.

He’s going to go home pretty soon
And leave me here—oh well—
I wonder if dogs have a heav’n?
I know we’ve got a hell.

Italian soldier with dog on Asiago Plain

Sunday, June 11, 2017


USS Leviathan, AEF troopship (carried as many as 14,000 per trip)

When America entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, many politicians and members of the public assumed that the United States would continue to simply send armaments and aid, without any direct military involvement.  At a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee shortly after war had been declared, Senator Thomas S. Martin’s stunned reaction to Wilson’s war plan was, “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”*

Life magazine, Jan 31, 1918, Norman Rockwell
But on June 14, 1917, just over two months after the U.S. entered the war, the first American troops sailed for France14,000 soldiers of the First Division.  By August of 1918, the U.S. had sent nearly 1,500,000 men overseas.** Willard Newton, a doughboy sailing with the 105th Engineers of North Carolina, wrote in his diary,

As the transport steams slowly out of Hoboken it passes the statue of liberty, and though we are all supposed to be below deck several of us fellows slip up and take a last look at the statue and then go back below. The fellows congregate in small groups, some singing songs that have become popular since the war, and others are discussing the journey that lays before them. We are leaving the States to return no more until our task "over there" is finished.***

Sailing with the 80th Division, Tingle Culbertson wrote to his family,

…there was a certain amount of drill and work to be done on board but we had plenty of free time.  Among other things on the boat were three bands and a large unit of nurses.  There was ample space on the stairway landings between decks, so every day from about two until sundown was like the Edgeworth Club on a Saturday night.°

John Allan Wyeth, a French translator with the 33rd Division of the A.E.F., shaped his experiences of the war into poetry (This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets, 1928).

The Transport

A thick still heat stifles the dim saloon.
The rotten air hangs heavy on us all,
and trails a steady penetrating steam
of hot wet flannel and the evening’s mess.
Close bodies swaying, catcalls out of tune,
while the jazz band syncopates the Darktown Strutters’ Ball,
we crowd like minnows in a muddy stream.
USS Leviathan December 1917
Courtesy of CWO2 John A. Steel, USN
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph 
O God, even here a sense of loneliness…
I grope my way on deck to watch the moon
gleam sharply where the shadows rise and fall
in the immense disturbance of the sea.
And like the vast possession of a dream
that black ship, and the pale sky’s emptiness,
and this great wind become a part of me.
                        —John Allan Wyeth

As the ship crosses the vast Atlantic, a soldier separates himself from the heat, noise, and smell of the thousands of men who are distracting themselves from the war ahead. Groping his way to the darkened deck, he confronts his own loneliness and realizes his own insignificance: “we crowd like minnows in a muddy stream.”  The simile suggests not only the landscape of the Western Front, but the moral ambiguities of the war itself. 

Shadows rise and fall with the rolling of the ship, appearing as ghost-like figures in a disturbed dream. In this, Wyeth’s poem is eerily similar to Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment.” Writing as he sailed for Gallipoli, Brooke also found himself alone on a darkened ship, imagining his fellow soldiers as “Perishing things and strange ghosts—soon to die.”
John Allen Wyeth (right)
& brother, Marion Sims Wyeth

Disconnected from the men around him, the solitary soldier in Wyeth’s “Transport” resigns himself to the loneliness of war, joined only to the emptiness of the sky and the invisibility of the wind. 

B.J. Omanson, the military historian and poet who rediscovered Wyeth’s war poems, notes the “many compelling aspects” of Wyeth’s sonnets: they skillfully adopt a distanced, neutral tone, while “capturing the fleeting essence of the moment.”°° And yet, as poet Dana Gioia writes, “Wyeth is not merely a forgotten poet. He was never noticed. Unmentioned in literary histories and critical literature even in his own lifetime, his work appears in no anthologies of any sort—not anywhere, not ever.”  Still Gioia and others (among them, Tim Kendall, editor of Oxford University Press’s Poetry of the First World War) argue that Wyeth may be “the finest American soldier-poet of World War I.”°°°

It is intriguing to compare modern critical judgement of This Man’s Army with the review that appeared in 1932 in Poetry magazine: “A group of sonnets, strung with slang and soldiers’ patois, telling of the poet’s experiences in the war.  They are scrupulously exact descriptions with little comment, and they ring with vivid reality.  They are probably not poetry but they are good stuff.”

* Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker: America at War, 2 vols (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931), Vol. I, page 120.
** C.N. Trueman, “America’s Military Power in World War One.” The History Learning Site, posted March 6, 2015, 16 Aug 2016.
*** Entry for May 27, 1918, Willard Newton Diary, published as “Over There for Uncle Sam,” Charlotte Observer, available online at this link.  
° Private letter dated May 1918.
°° B.J. Omanson, “Artistry & authenticity in the war sonnets of John Allan Wyeth,” The War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” posted March 11, 2012. Omanson’s insights on Wyeth’s poetry and the First World War are remarkable and can be found online at The War Poetry of John Allen Wyeth and History and Lore of the Old World War.
°°° Dana Gioia, “The Obscurity of John Allan Wyeth,” Dana Gioia website.