|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 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|
In his memoir I Remember the Last War, AEF Sergeant Bob Hoffman writes,
|Der Krieg no 13: Mealtime in the Trenches by Otto Dix|
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, danagioia.com/essays/reviews-and-authors-notes/the-obscurity-of-john-allan-wyeth/. 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.