Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Recalling the Troops

Laferchou et les autres by Sebastien Roche
The Great War followed soldiers home. British war poets Siegfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met in 1917 while both were patients at Craiglockhart undergoing therapy for shell shock.  Sassoon’s poem “Survivors” describes the mental sufferings of soldiers who could not forget the war:

French victim of shell shock reacts to officer's cap
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

What the British referred to as shell shock (the term originated in World War I), the French named variously as obusite (from the word for artillery shell), commotional syndrome, war neurosis, or battle hypnosis. Some French physicians simply labeled the condition hysteria, a term with a long history that “also served to humiliate soldiers.”* French soldiers suffering from the trauma of the war faced an additional challenge: 

Marcel Sauvage
Mental illness was still too closely tied to degenerates and drunks. While an amputee could easily be touted as a hero, a chronically confused soldier was not a model veteran…. The mentally alienated veterans sequestered in asylums were considered les morts vivants—‘the living dead.’ They were survivors of the war, but they were as good as dead to their families who saw them rarely and could no longer count on them for financial or emotional support….Even those who escaped institutionalization were seen to inhabit a realm that was somewhere short of truly living.**    

Marcel Sauvage was nearly nineteen when the war interrupted his medical studies in Paris. Serving as a stretcher bearer at the Somme, Sauvage was seriously injured and gassed while recovering the wounded.  A French newspaper commended his courage, describing him as a “stretcher bearer of absolute devotion” (brancardier d’un dévouement absolu).†  Sauvage’s war poems were written between 1916 and 1920; his poem “Recall-Up” (Rappel) depicts memories that tortured many of the veterans of the First World War.  The  poem’s title carries a double meaning, suggesting the act of remembering as well as that of summoning the troops (in French, battre le rappel). 


Suppose, all at once,
Blood were to bead
From mahoganies
And walls and hangings

In your drawing-rooms?

Suppose, in the night, all at once
The lamps bled,
Lights like wounds?
Or your rugs swelled and
Exploded, like bellies of dead horses?

Suppose the violins
Took up
The tears of the men,
The last refrain of the men
With exploded skulls across every plain on the globe?

Suppose your diamonds, your bright diamonds,
Now were only eyes
All round you, in the night,
All at once?

What would you tell of life
To a skeleton, suddenly there,
Stock-still, bone-bare,
Its only mark
A Military Cross?
            --Marcel Sauvage, translated by Ian Higgins††

The poem begins by inviting readers to imagine or dream—“Suppose”— but the visions that follow lead on a journey into madness. Spreading out from the trenches, the war has polluted the very sanctity of home. Blood wells up from drawing room furniture and drips from curtains and walls; lamps bleed “like wounds,” and rugs bloat like the carcasses of dead horses until they explode under the internal pressure. Domestic objects of comfort and beauty are transformed into hallucinations of horror, and even the glitter of diamonds shifts to reveal glowing eyes of madness that stare out from the dark. 

Sound is also distorted, as the music of violins sobs with the last refrain of men dying horribly, their skulls exploded by machine gun fire, shrapnel, and shell. In the poem’s final chilling image, we stand before the skeleton of a dead French soldier who stands bone-bare, wearing only his medal of bravery, the Croix de Guerre.  What can we tell him of life, we who have inhabited the haunted minds of les morts vivants—‘the living dead’?  

In 1929, Sauvage published Le Premier Homme Que J’ai Tué (The First Man I Killed).  The book recalls how at the age of twenty, a young soldier thrusts his bayonet into the body of a German soldier and watches him die.  For many of the soldiers of the Great War, the battles continued to rage long after the Armistice was declared and the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Theirs was a war that never truly ended.
*Gregory M. Thomas, Treating the Trauma of the Great War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Psychiatry in France 1914-1940, Louisiana State University Press, 2009, pp. 20-21.
** Thomas, Treating the Trauma, pp. 125-126.
††Many thanks to Ian Higgins for generously discussing his translation of the poem and for granting permission to include it on this blog. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017


The Sunken Road by Frederick Varley © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0771

“There are two chief reasons why a soldier feels fear: first, that he will not get home to see his loved ones again; but, most of all, picturing himself in the same position as some of the dead men we saw.  They lay there face up, usually in the rain, their eyes open, their faces pale and chalk-like, their gold teeth showing. That is in the beginning. After that, they are usually too horrible to think about.  We buried them as fast as we could—Germans, French and Americans alike. Get them out of sight, but not out of memory.  I can remember hundreds and hundreds of dead men.  I would know them now if I were to meet them in a hereafter.  I could tell them where they were lying and how they were killed—whether with shell fire, gas, machine gun or bayonet.”      
                        — Robert C. Hoffman, US 28th Division, American Expeditionary Force*

John Allan Wyeth has been credited as “the finest American soldier-poet of World War I.”** His poems tell their stories in a matter-of-fact, neutral tone, as if seen from the vantage point of a neutral observer or documentary film-maker.  In “Picnic: Harbonnières to Bayonvillers,” Wyeth narrates the account of two Americans soldiers riding through the scene of an earlier battle. The poem sketches an unforgettable image of what it was like to work and live amongst the dead.  

Picnic:  Harbonnières to Bayonvillers

A house marked Ortskommandantur—a great
sign Kaiserplatz on a corner of the church,
and German street names all around the square.
Troop columns split to let our sidecar through.
“Drive like hell and get back on the main road—it’s getting late.”
                        The roadway seemed to reel and lurch
through clay wastes rimmed and pitted everywhere.
“You hungry? – Have some of this, there’s enough for two.”
We drove through Bayonvillers—and as we ate
men long since dead reached out and left a smirch
and taste in our throats like gas and rotten jam.
“Want any more?”
                        “Yes sir, if you got enough there.”
“Those fellows smell pretty strong.”
                                    “I’ll say they do,
but I’m too hungry sir to care a damn.”
                        —John Allan Wyeth

Field Marshal Haig, Oct. 1918, AEF Signal Corps 28254 
The Battle of Amiens began on August 8, 1918.  By the close of the day, the Germans had lost an estimated 30,000 men (12,000 of whom had surrendered); German Commander-in-Chief Erich Ludendorff described it as “the black day of the German Army.” By the end of the battle, German casualties totaled 75,000, but the Allied losses were also staggeringly high: 44,000 men had been lost.  As the Allied troops pushed forward in the heat of summer, they moved through a charnel house of corpses.

The poem’s title “Harbonnières to Bayonvillers” names two small villages, approximately 3 miles apart, that were both taken by the Allies on August 8th.  Eyewitness accounts describe a landscape littered with bodies and wreckage left in the wake of the attack. It’s an ironic setting for a picnic. The title is also ironic as picnic is an American slang term used since the 1870s to refer to something as “easy or straightforward… a pushover.”

Nothing about the scene described is ordinary or straightforward, however.  The roadways “reel and lurch” like a drunkard; bomb craters scar the land, and the dead seem to reach out in a macabre gesture of supplication.

Morning at Passchendaele, Frank Hurley 1917 
But while the scene is surreal, the men’s response to it is casual and laconic.  Amidst the gagging smell of decay that leaves a taste like “gas and rotten jam,” they share a meal. These men are not unwittingly callous – they are aware of the eerily unnatural situation; they comment on the dead that surround them, call them “fellows,” and note the repugnant stench of rotting bodies.  But the horror is not enough to dispel their hunger. They are alive with work to do, and “in this stripped-to-the-bare-essentials world, food, water, clothing, shelter, warmth, and sleep become the all-encompassing obsession.”†

In his memoir I Remember the Last War, AEF Sergeant Bob Hoffman writes,

Der Krieg no 13: Mealtime in the Trenches by Otto Dix
Did you ever smell a dead mouse? This will give you about as much idea of what a group of long dead soldiers smell like as will one grain of sand give you an idea of Atlantic City’s beaches…. It was hard to touch these dead men at first.  My people at home, hearing of what I was passing through, expected me to come back hard, brutal, callous, careless.  But I didn’t even want to take a dead mouse out of a trap when I was home. Yet over there I buried seventy-eight men one morning…. They were shot up in a great variety of ways, and it was not pleasant, but I managed to eat my quota of bread and meat when it came up with no opportunity to wash my hands.”††

Wyeth’s poem distills an important lesson of the Great War: learning to live with death was often the key to survival.
*Bob Hoffman, I Remember the Last War, Strength & Health, 1940, pp. 163-164.
**Dana Gioa, “The Obscurity of John Allan Wyeth.” Dana Gioa, Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
† Richard S. Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I. University of Kansas, 2017, p. 100.
†† Hoffman, I Remember, pp. 162, 165-166.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Soldier Poet

Front Line Stuff by Claggett Wilson, Smithsonian Museum
The largest battle in the history of the American army is the Meuse-Argonne, yet few Americans know of the offensive that lasted from September 26 to November 11, 1918.  Over 1.2 million U.S. doughboys were involved; 26,277 men were killed, and an additional 95,786 were wounded. In To Conquer Hell, historian Edward G. Lengel writes,

No single battle in American military history, before or since, even approaches the Meuse-Argonne in size and cost, and it was without question the country’s most critical military contribution to the Allied Cause in the First World War. And yet, within a few years of its end, nobody seemed to realize that it had taken place.”*

Hervey Allen, 1917
Hervey Allen, a National Guard soldier from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, never made it to the Argonne forest. Gassed, burned, wounded by shrapnel, and suffering the effects of shell shock from the attack at Fismette, he was evacuated to a military hospital in August of 1918.  Shortly before his part in the war ended, however, Allen met up at the front with his close friend Francis (Frank) Hogan, a fellow Pittsburgher and aspiring poet. Allen and Hogan “peered into each other’s faces in the dark and sat down on a stone together and had a close talk.” The two soldiers promised to try to meet again. Allen remembers, “I had an impulse to take Frank with me, but I only shook hands with him….I never saw him again.  He was a brilliant and promising poet. He was killed in the Argonne in October a few days before the armistice.”**

Liberty Bond poster
Howard Chandler Christy
Corporal Francis Fowler Hogan was 21 when he died.

To Francis Fowler Hogan

I think at first like us he did not see
The goal to which the screaming eagles flew;
For romance lured him, France, and chivalry;
But Oh! Before the end he knew, he knew!
And gave his first full love to Liberty,
And met her face to face one lurid night
While the guns boomed their shuddering minstrelsy
And all the Argonne glowed with demon light.
And Liberty herself came through the wood,
And with her dear, boy lover kept the tryst;
Clasped in her grand, Greek arms he understood
Whose were the fatal lips that he had kissed –
Lips that the soul of Youth has loved from old –
Hot lips of Liberty that kiss men cold.
            —Hervey Allen

What was the goal toward which the screaming eagles flew that Frank Hogan was unable to see at the start? The brutal death that awaited him and so many soldiers of the Great War.  Lured by the promise of chivalrous adventure, men soon came to know intimately the shuddering music of artillery fire that blasted them into mist. 

Allen’s poem in memory of Hogan mixes romantic images of war with depictions of horror: shells drop with the sound of medieval minstrel song, while a soldier’s night-time tryst with his first love, Liberty, is lit by the lurid demon light of fire and explosives. American Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry cried, “Give me Liberty or give me Death”; soldiers of the First World War learned that the price for loving Liberty often was death.  Hers are the hot lips that “kiss men cold.”

Francis Fowler Hogan
In an earlier, longer draft of “Soldier Poet,” Allen mourns the wasted potential of his friend’s early death and asks,
Where is my youth-crowned friend who went to war,
With his strong body and a golden smile?

Francis Hogan’s own poem “Fulfilled,” written while he was fighting in France, answers,
Think not that my life has been futile,
Nor grieve for an unsaid word,
For all that my lips might never sing
My singing heart has heard….
I have made a song of the crescent moon
And a poem of only a smile…

Frank’s mother had his body returned to the United States after the war ended; he was reburied on August 13, 1921 in Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.***  

*Edward G. Lengel, To Conquer Hell, Henry Holt, 2008, p. 4.
**Hervey Allen, Toward the Flame, Farrar & Rinehart, 1934, pp. 76-77.
***Thanks to Jennie Benford, Director of Programming for Homewood Cemetery, without whom I would not have known of these men and their poetry.