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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Picnic

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.”
“Yessir.”
                        The roadways 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.
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*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.


5 comments:

  1. A very thoughtful commentary on this sonnet. The wider context you've provided makes the universal significance of Wyeth's narrative much more apparent: how, in the midst of horror, the mundane details of daily existence & a dark offhand humor are sometimes all that keep one from descending into madness.

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  2. Thanks very much, BJ. As you are one of the foremost scholars in the world on Wyeth's poetry, I am greatly honored by your comment!

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  3. How interesting to see this perspicacious commentary on Wyeth's sonnet. The article gave me a much more vivid sense of the poem's setting and the awful history of these small villages.

    Dana Gioia

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    1. Thanks so very much for reading and responding; this post wouldn't have been possible without your support of and scholarship on Wyeth.

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  4. A great selection of prose and the poem. Life thank goodness did go on. The fact that it did is the distilled essence of the triumph of humanity over the horror of war. We are not the meat that makes us.

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