Wednesday, August 16, 2017

War Song

La Guerre, Henri Rousseau (1894), Musee d'Orsay

And so, then, for all in time of war, here
are the cockerels, clamouring defiance,
and the vultures, ponderous with hate,
talons stained with the blood of memories.
            —epigraph from Granier’s Cockerels and Vultures, 1917

French artillery officer Albert-Paul Granier was born in the Atlantic coastal village of Le Croisic in September of 1888. He was raised in a home where he was surrounded by music; Gabriel Fauré was a family friend. Although Granier studied law and qualified as a solicitor, in his spare time he composed music and was an accomplished pianist.  In the years before the Great War, he was also a “Sunday poet,” having “enough leisure time for artistic activity.”*
Albert-Paul Granier

Joining the French army in August of 1914, Granier was assigned to the 116th Heavy Artillery regiment; in 1916 his unit was stationed at Verdun in support of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By 1917, Granier had volunteered and been reassigned as an aerial observer, accompanying pilots on reconnaissance missions in the Verdun sector.

Granier recorded his impressions of the war in startlingly modern poetry that has been compared to that of Apollinaire. His only book of poems, Les Coqs et les Vautours (translated as Cockerels and Vultures), was published in Paris in 1917.**

Even his earliest poems, written in 1914, evoke the surreal violence of war in a world gone mad (a video performance of the poem in French can be viewed here).

War Song

Dame Death is joyously dancing,
a drunken, hip-swinging jig,
never a word, just wriggling
and playfully juggling skulls
like so many knucklebones.
Dance of Death, Felicien Rops

Dame Death is glad, and very drunk—
for there’s blood in full flow out there,
a heavy red brookful in every ravine.

Accompanying her weird dancing
is the tom-tom of guns in the distance:
“Tom-tom-tom! tom-tom-tom! Come then, White Lady,
come dance to the sound of the drums!”

Dame Death’s getting drunker and splashing
her sweet little face with blood,
like a child who’s been eating the jam.

Dame Death is paddling in blood,
and slapping down into it with her long hands,
as though she were washing her shroud;
wallowing, and silently sniggering.

Dame Death is flushed, writhing, dancing
like a girl who’s had too much drink.

“Hey, Death, get your hopping in time
with the tom-tom of guns in the distance!”

                        The guns in the distance
quicken their murderous presto,
guns laughing together in rhythm;
the guns in the band force the tempo,
whipping her up for The Jubilation Ball:

“Spin on those dainty slim feet,
squirm the meat off those sinuous hips,
get waltzing and whirling, White Lady!
dancing and skipping! waving your arms!
Here’s blood, here’s blood!
And here’s some more, to keep you going!
Come on now, drink up! totter and reel!
This is the start of the Orgy in Red!”

Dame Death is dancing, insanely drunk,
to the tom-tom of guns in the distance.
                        --1914, Albert-Paul Granier, translated by Ian Higgins

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Hartmann Schedel 1440-1514
Granier’s “Chanson de Guerre” is a highly unsettling portrayal of death as both a gleeful child and a drunken, dancing woman.  Death appears not as the Grim Reaper, but as a child whose “sweet little face” is smeared with blood as if it were jam.  Nightmarishly, this vision of Death playfully juggles skulls and blithely paddles in blood.  At the same time, Death appears as a highly sexualized woman, “flushed, writhing, dancing/ like a girl who’s had too much drink.” She wriggles her “sinuous hips” and welcomes “the Orgy in Red.”

What the child and the prostitute share is an eerie, inappropriate, unstoppable laughter. They thrill at the carnage and laugh at the slaughter; to Death, the war is a joyous event (the British trench poet Julian Grenfell writes quite differently about the “Joy of Battle” at which Death “moans and sings”). 

In Granier’s “War Song,” Death celebrates her addiction to bloodshed. She cannot get enough of her favorite brew, and there’s so very much of it – enough blood to wash in, to wallow in, and to guzzle from “the heavy red brookful” that fills every ravine.  Death rhapsodizes, “Here’s blood, here’s blood!/ And here’s some more, to keep you busy!”

French gunner, 1916
What is it that drives Death’s precarious and tottering dance on her “dainty thin heels”?  She wriggles and writhes to the hypnotic drumbeat of the guns that laugh and “quicken their murderous presto.” As a heavy artillery gunner, Granier would have been intimately acquainted with the rhythmic beat of shellfire as he and his unit tuned the music of their artillery batteries.

Granier’s “War Song” might seem to paint an exaggerated picture of death in the First World War, but the statistics are even more shocking. How much blood? How much death?  During the duration of the war, on average, nearly 900 French soldiers were killed every day; of the 8.4 million French soldiers who were mobilized, 1.3 million died and 4.2 million were wounded. Over 73% of the French troops who entered the war became casualties of the war.† 

Less than three weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday, on August 17, 1917 Albert-Paul Granier was killed while flying as an observer over the Verdun battlefieldHis plane was hit by a shell, and no trace of his body was ever found. He is honored in the Pantheon in Paris, his name appearing alongside those of 560 other French writers who died in the Great War.
*Jean Leclercq, “Albert-Paul Granier, the unknown soldier poet,” Le Mot Juste en Anglais, posted 5 April 2015.
**Despite receiving a commendation from the Académie française in 1918, the book was soon forgotten and only rediscovered in 2008 after a copy was found at a French flea market. Further discussion of Granier and his poetry can be read on this blog at the post “A good death.”
†The average number of French killed each day of the First World War is taken from “War Losses (France), 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. The statistics on French total casualties during the war are from C.N. Trueman, “First World War Casualties,” The History Learning Site, posted 17 April 2015.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lost at sea

RMS Alcantara, former ocean liner, sunk in combat 1916
Charles Edward Dixon
While images of the First World War are inextricably linked to the trenches of the Western Front, over 44,000 British men lost their lives at sea, and an estimated 35,000 German sailors died in the war.* The war at sea was more important than most realize: Germany’s attempt to build a powerful navy and threaten Britain’s domination of the seas was a key factor leading to the outbreak of war, and Britain’s naval blockade of Germany was critical in ending the conflict.      

RMS Baltic, before conversion to military transport ship
Dreadnought battleships, developed at the start of the century, were equipped with guns that fired at ranges of nearly 20 miles, while submarines launched torpedo attacks with devastating results (the best known sinking was that of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, in which 1,198 passengers died).  But in the race for naval supremacy, many civilian ships, including luxury ocean liners, were also requisitioned and re-fitted for military service. The “Big Four” of the White Star Line (the RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic, and RMS Adriatic) –some of the world’s largest ships— all served in the British Navy in the First World War. 

Henry Smalley Sarson was born in London, but emigrated to Canada and was working as a farmer when war broke out in 1914.  On September 25, 1914, he enlisted in the army and pledged “to serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, and to be attached to any area of the service therin, for the term of one year, or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should that war last longer than one year.”** Sarson was wounded in 1916 while serving with the Canadian Field Ambulance; he published a small volume of poetry From Field and Hospital that same year.

The Armed Liner

The dull gray paint of war
Covering the shining brass and gleaming decks
That once re-echoed to the steps of youth.
That was before
The storms of destiny made ghastly wrecks
Of Peace, the Right and Truth.
Impromptu dances, colored lights and laughter,
Lovers watching the phosphorescent waves,
Now gaping guns, a whistling shell; and after
So many wandering graves.
                        —H. Smalley Sarson

Those who lived during the Great War were gripped by a sense of the catastrophic changes it caused.  What once was bright and shining is now coated with the “dull gray paint of war.” Decks that previously echoed with the steps of spirited young men and women have been swamped by “the storms of destiny,” leaving in ruins the abstract ideals that had provided hope and stability. Gone are the luxury ocean liners, the leisurely lovers, and the light-hearted dancers; ugliness and impermanence now mark the world.† 
Philip Genders, killed at Jutland
 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 

The final lines of the poem offer a bleak picture of the future: muzzles of the ship’s guns gape with an insatiable appetite for yet more blood and death, while the bodies of those who die at sea can find no final resting place. Their graves wander with the ocean currents, denying their loved ones the opportunity of choosing an inscription, making a visit, or marking the burial site.   

After the First World War, the British built memorials at Plymouth, Chatham, and Portsmouth for their sailors who have no known grave but the sea.  In 1936, Germany completed its World War I naval memorial at Laboe, but in 1952, the memorial’s purpose was expanded to “commemorate fallen sailors of all nations.” While the change was made due to political pressures following the Second World War, it is in keeping with George Bruce’s 1884 reflection on those who die at sea:

The sea is the largest cemetery, and its slumberers sleep without a monument. All other graveyards show symbols of distinction between great and small, rich and poor: but in the ocean cemetery, the king, the clown, the prince, and the peasant are alike undistinguishable.††

Portsmouth Naval Memorial

*British naval casualties figures appear in the article published on Ancestry’s website, “Revealed: 1-in-3 British Naval Heroes Were Underage.” The figure for German naval deaths can be found in Alison Smale’s, “Militarism and Humiliation Cast Shadow on Germany,” published online by the New York Times, 26 June 2014.   
**Sarson’s attestation papers can be found at the Imperial War Museum’s website Lives of the First World War, Henry Smalley Sarson.”
†For other poems on ships and ghosts of the dead, see Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment” and John Allan Wyeth’s “The Transport.”
††George Bruce, Wrecks and reminiscences of St. Andrews Bay, John Leng & Company, 1884, p. 413.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Eating chip potatoes

British soldiers at the Somme, Oct. 1916 © IWM (Q 1580)

Historian Paul Fussell, writing in The Great War and Modern Memory, describes the growing sense contemporaries held that the Great War “might be endless”: 
One did not have to be a lunatic or a particularly despondent visionary to conceive quite seriously that the war would literally never end and would become the permanent condition of mankind. The stalemate and attrition would go on infinitely, becoming, like the telephone and the internal combustion engine, a part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience.*

Bruce Bairnsfather:
"Well, Alfred, 'ow are the cakes?"
Yet while it seemed as if the war might last forever, those caught in its grip became increasingly aware of the evanescent quality of human life.  In her memoir Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain explains,
France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.** 

For some, fiercely living in the present meant extracting whatever small and simple pleasures might be available in the existing circumstances. William Kersley Holmes was a banker who joined the Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry regiment and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery.  Holmes published two volumes of poetry (Ballads of Field and Billet and More Ballads of Field and Billet) that capture this spirit of determined buoyancy. A reviewer for the Scotsman praised his work, writing, “It may seem a rather doubtful compliment to the verses in this readable book to say that they are pedestrian; but they do not attempt to soar high, to celebrate martial glory.” The Glasgow Herald said of Holmes’ poems,
They range from the grave to the humorous, from the realistic to the romantic, but something of the brightness of youth is in them all, something of that gallant gaiety which makes a jest of the discomforts of life, yet never thinks of life itself as a jest.† 
Holmes’ “The Soldier Mood” captures one such incident in which three friends eat and laugh together, “Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.”

The Soldier Mood

We were eating chip potatoes underneath the April stars
That glittered coldly and aloof from earth and earthly wars;
We were three good pals together, and the day’s hard work was done,
So we munched our chip potatoes, half for food and half for fun.

Half the world was war’s dominion, but the mutter of the strife
Had come to seem accustomed as the undertone of life;
We were fit and hard and happy, and the future was unknown,
The past—all put behind us; but the present was our own.

We were doing our plainest duty, meant to end what we’d begun;
Why worry for to-morrow till to-day’s big job was done?
So we walked and laughed together like three modern musketeers—
Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.

We were eating chip potatoes with our fingers, like a tramp,
And the unseen owls were hooting in the trees around the camp;
We were happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong;
So—to-morrow might be terror, but to-night could be a song!
                                                —W. Kersley Holmes

In Holmes' poem, the prolonged stalemate of trench warfare and the immensity of the conflict (involving half of the nations of the world) have so normalized violence and death that they have come to be accepted as “the normal undertone of life.”  With an unspoken understanding, the men realize that dwelling on memories of past battles or anticipating terrors of future attacks will lead to fearful paralysis; the only way forward is to claim the present as their own, without ceremony or posturing. The soldiers’ mood –“Happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong”—is not a philosophy born out of naïve idealism, but rather a means of coping with the ever-present terrors of the war.
In another poem “The Neutral,” Holmes acknowledges that the war has put at risk not only men’s lives, but their sense of themselves:
War, like a restless fever, haunts the air,
Changing the world we knew;
The men we are forget the men we were
In all we think and do.
Grasping at simple pleasures that were connected with their past lives—“eating chip potatoes”—gave soldiers a tangible way of preserving personal identities that many felt were slipping away with each day the war dragged on.††

*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 2000, page 71.  For more on the Never-Endians, see also this blog's post “The Other Side” (Alec Waugh). 
**Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Virago Press, 2004, pages 338-339.
†Both reviews are quoted in the Dollar Magazine, Vol XIV, No. 54, June 1915, pages 74-75 (the magazine was a publication of Dollar Academy, Holmes’ alma mater).
††Holmes’ poem “Singing ‘Tipperary’” also explores soldiers’ struggles to retain a sense of their individuality while caught up in the larger forces of the war.