Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Harvest

It’s a mysterious poem that has been given various titles: “A Farmer’s Grace,” “Silver Rain,” “Mealtime Blessing,” and “Scarlet Poppies,” but most sources call it “The Harvest” and name its author as Alice C. Henderson (most likely Alice Corbin Henderson, the associate editor of Poetry magazine from 1912 – 1922).* 
The Harvest

The silver rain, the shining sun
The fields where scarlet poppies run
And all the ripples of the wheat
Are in the bread that we now eat.

And when we sit at every meal
And say our grace we always feel
That we are eating rain and sun
And fields where scarlet poppies run.
            —Alice C. Henderson

Given the images of plentiful grain and mealtime grace, it’s easy to see why the poem is popular at Thanksgiving.  It reminds us that we are all connected to the earth that provides our food, but other connections and reminders are also seeded throughout the poem.  If the poem were written during or after the First World War, the scarlet poppies would also readily evoke memories of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” and the numerous other poems that associated the poppies of the Western Front with the dead of the Great War.

The scarlet poppies in “The Harvest” do not bloom or wave in the fields – they run in the way that blood runs on battlefields.  And during the war, food was deeply connected with fighting.  Citizens were reminded of the fact in the rationing posters that were everywhere:

“Don’t Waste Bread! Save Two Thick Slices Every Day and Defeat the “U” Boat
“Victory is a Question of Stamina – Send the Wheat, Meat, Fats, Sugar – the Fuel for Fighters”
“This is the loaf that must win the war”
“Waste of FOOD is Disloyalty; Economy of FOOD is Patriotism; Production of FOOD is National Service”

Even the poem’s title, “The Harvest,” suggests the grim harvest of battle and the millions of young men who had died, feeling a deep connection to their homelands. (Rupert Brooke’s “If I should die, think only this of me; / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England” is the best-known example).

“The Harvest” is a prayer of thanksgiving for rain and sun and wheat and poppies – and perhaps also for the soldiers who are buried on the fields of the First World War.  Those who eat the rain and sun are also partaking in a communion with the dead as they literally eat the bread of sacrifice.  If “The Harvest” is a thanksgiving grace, it closes not with “Amen,” but “Lest We Forget.”
*This blog has previously posted on Alice Corbin (the name she signed to her poetry).  You can read more about her and her poem “Litany in the Desert” at this link

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To the Patriotic Lady

1918, Albany Institute of History & Art HW-8120
Less than six months after the United States entered the First World War, a deadly riot in Texas involving black soldiers, civilians, and local police left twenty-two dead and led to the largest murder trial in American history. 
Soldiers of 24th Infantry Regt.,
Camp Logan, Houston Chronicle
In the summer of 1917, soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment—which had originated with the Buffalo Soldier regiments of the West and had served honorably in the Philippines and Mexico—were ordered from New Mexico to Texas.  Assigned to guard the construction of a new military installation, Camp Logan, the soldiers arrived in Houston on 28 July 1917.  Almost from the first, the black soldiers were the targets of virulent racial discrimination that frequently extended to abuse and assault. 

Tensions escalated, and on August 23rd, Private Alonzo Edwards came to the aid of a black woman whom he felt was the victim of police abuse; he was pistol-whipped and arrested. When a respected black Corporal tried to learn more about Edwards’ imprisonment, he was also beaten.  Attempting to flee, he was shot at, captured, and also imprisoned. Back at the military base, false rumors of the Corporal’s murder and of the advance of a white mob provoked black soldiers to arm themselves and march on Houston, exchanging gunfire with police and civilians in a situation that had spiraled out of control. By the end of the night, four black soldiers, two black civilians, and sixteen whites were dead.*

The first of three military court martials charged 63 black soldiers with aggravated assault, mutiny, and murder, making it the largest murder trial in U.S. history. The court appointed one man to defend the 63 soldiers; Major Harry S. Grier, a teacher of law at West Point, was not a lawyer and had no trial experience.  Forty-one of the accused were sentenced to life in prison and 13 were condemned to death.  On 11 December 1917, without public notice, the 13 men were hurriedly hung and buried in graves marked only with the numbers one through thirteen. By the end of the three court martials, 118 men had been charged with serious crimes, and of these, 110 were found guilty; 53 black soldiers were sentenced to life in prison, while 29 more received the death sentence.**
Court Martial, Houston Riot of 1917

The case still generates controversy, but nearly all historians agree that while some of the soldiers were undeniably guilty, the trial was not fair, the accused were denied the right to appeal, and it is highly probable that innocent men were unjustly condemned.  An article published in the Houston Chronicle one-hundred years after the riot makes the point that it is “an ugly tale with no heroes.” ***

Perhaps the key contributing factor to the tragedy was that for the men of the 24th Infantry, “Wherever they had been sent, their race had never overtly been an issue.  But on July 28, as they got to Houston, they found it was all that mattered.” ***

Race matters were inextricably intertwined with U.S. participation in the First World War and shaped the ways in which American citizens thought about the war, who should fight, and what they were fighting for.  In November of 1917 the New York Call, a leading socialist newspaper, published on its editorial page a poem that juxtaposes racial attitudes with America’s motives for entering the World War.  

To the Patriotic Lady across the Way
RH Porteous, 1917

She wore a Liberty loan button
And above it a silken American flag,
And her knitting needles clicked
Through some soldier’s sweater.
A youth came on the subway
And sat beside her—
A comely youth, neat, intelligent,
Yes, even respectable;
But his skin was black
And his lips were thick
And his nose was broad and flat.
She gathered her knitting needles together
In unseemly panic,
And as she fled, with disdainful nose, tip-tilted,
To the lower end of the car
I noticed that she wore a Liberty loan button
And a silken American flag—
And I do believe she thinks she’s helping
To make the world safe for democracy.

The woman on the subway appears in every way to be a true patriot: she has purchased a Liberty Bond and proudly wears the button that proves it.  Just above that button, she displays her national pride with an American flag lapel decoration, and she donates her time in knitting for soldiers. Yet her charity is quickly packed away when a black youth enters the subway and sits beside her. Unable to recognize his character or intelligence, she sees only his race.  With disdain and fear, the “Patriotic Lady” moves as far from this “other” as she can, denying his right to join her world.

In exposing the Patriotic Lady’s hypocrisy, the poem criticizes U.S. involvement in the war itself. It insists that war supporters who fight to ensure democratic rights for the peoples of Europe cannot continue to deny liberty and justice to all Americans. In July of 1917, Hubert Harrison, the president of the Liberty League of North America, protested at a New York City rally,

‘They are saying a great deal about democracy in Washington now,’ but, ‘while they are talking about fighting for freedom and the Stars and Stripes, here at home the white apply the torch to the black man’s homes, and bullets, clubs, and stones to their bodies.’

And yet 400,000 African-Americans volunteered or were drafted into the American Expeditionary Force and 200,000 served in France. W.E.B. Du Bois appealed to black Americans,

Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.  We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.

While the anonymous Zelda of The Call is unlikely to have supported the war, she might have sympathized with Lucian B. Watkins, a sergeant with the US 92nd Division who defended black hopes and aspirations in his poem “The Negro Soldiers of America: What We Are Fighting For”:

We fight—for all who suffer pain,
   We give our souls in sympathy;
We fight that Liberty may reign
   From Berlin until Tennessee.†††

*David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race, Henry Holt, 1994, p. 541.
** Mike Tolson, “The ugly history of Camp Logan,” Houston Chronicle, 19 Aug. 2017, updated 21 Aug. 2017,, Accessed 13 Nov. 2017.
*** Tolson, “The ugly history.”
Jeffery B. Perry, Hubert Harrison, Columbia University, 2008, p. 299.  
†† W.E.B. Du Bois, Crisis, July 1918, p. 311.
††† Lucian B. Watkins, “The Negro Soldiers of America: What We Are Fighting For,” Richmond Planet, 2 Mar. 1917, p. 1.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Stunned by the quiet

The Sentry by Harvey Dunn, National Archives P3752 
After 1,567 days, the Great War ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. And yet on the last morning of the war, over 2,700 men died on the Western Front.

As early as August of 1918, German General Ludendorff had told his staff that Germany could not win the war, and in late September, Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg agreed that they must seek an armistice.  The Kaiser was informed on September 30th, and on October 4th Germany contacted American president Woodrow Wilson, asking for terms based on his Fourteen Points.  Turkey agreed to peace terms on October 30th, and Austria-Hungary sought an armistice on November 3rd, but the German delegation didn’t meet to discuss an armistice with the French until late in the evening of November 7th.  By now, rumors of peace were everywhere.
Armistice celebration in London

Many of the Allies’ generals were not in favor of a negotiated peace; their armies were finally making gains, and they wished to pursue the fight, pushing their advantage to force Germany’s unconditional surrender. In a railway carriage at Compiègne, the German delegation had very little room to negotiate and were forced to accept nearly all terms imposed by the Allies, including the provision that within 14 days, they would evacuate and return all occupied territory and cede their rights to Alsace-Lorraine. The Armistice was finally signed at 5:10 am on the morning of November 11th and took effect less than six hours later. 

Along the Western Front, German troops celebrated the night of November 10th, shooting off flares and rockets.  On the morning of November 11th, a radio broadcast from the Eiffel Tower at 5:40 am announced the upcoming peace, and London received the news before 6:00 that morning.  

Although nearly everyone knew in advance that the war was over, even the most conservative estimates acknowledge that the casualties from both sides on the war’s last day reached nearly 11,000.  At least 2,738 men died on November 11th trying to take German positions that had already been ceded to the Allies. As historian Joseph E. Persico explains,
Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 percent higher than those on D-Day.  There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided.”*

It is nearly impossible to imagine the anxiety of the men who had survived and knew the end was only hours away. German soldier Georg Bücher had fought on the Western Front since 1914.  He recalled,
It was all the harder for us since we knew the end could not be far off.  We ducked at the sound of every explosion—which we had never bothered to do before.  The old hands fought for the deepest, safest dug-outs and did not scruple to leave to the young recruits the hundred and one things which were risky….The thought of an attack was more terrifying to them than to the young soldiers who were still so inexperienced, so touchingly helpless, yet in spite of everything, so willing.**

American Lieutenant Harry Rennagel, writing to his family, remembered his unit’s astonishment at learning they were to attack on that last morning. When a shell exploded near him at 10:55 a.m., he was spared, but discovered five of his “best men” had been hit:
One fatally injured, hole near heart, two seriously injured and the other two badly hurt. We took care of the injured men and then I knelt beside the lad whose eyes had such a look of sorrow that my eyes filled with tears.
“What is it old man?” I asked.
“Lieutenant, I'm going fast. Don't say I'll get better, you know different and this is a pretty unhappy time for me. You know we all expected things to cease to-day, so I wrote my girl, we were to be married when I returned, and my folks that I was safe and well and about my plans, and now by some order I am not going home.”
A glance at my watch, 11.05. I looked away and when I looked back — he had gone for The Highest Reward. I can honestly tell you I cried and so did the rest.***

American General Robert Lee Bullard, commander of the Second Army, also remembered Armistice Day in his memoir:
I went early, with an aide, to near the front, to see the last of it, to hear the crack of the last guns in the greatest war of all ages. I stayed until 11:00 a.m., when, all being over, I returned to my headquarters, thoughtful and feeling lost.†

American Lieutenant Hilmar Baukhauge’s poem “November Eleventh” describes, from the perspective of the men in the trenches, the moment the guns stopped firing.

November Eleventh

We stood up and we didn’t say a word,
It felt just like when you have dropped your pack
After a hike, and straightened out your back
And seem just twice as light as any bird.
Soldiers on Armistice Day, 1918

We stood up straight and, God! but it was good!
When you have crouched like that for months, to stand
Straight up and look right out toward No-Man’s-Land
And feel the way you never thought you could.

We saw the trenches on the other side
And Jerry, too, not making any fuss,
But prob’ly stupid-happy, just like us.
Nobody shot and no one tried to hide.

If you had listened then I guess you’d heard
A sort of sigh from everybody there,
But all we did was stand and stare and stare,
Just stare and stand and never say a word.
            —Hilmar R. Baukhage

Bells rang, fireworks exploded, whistles blew, and crowds cheered the news of peace in cities, towns, and villages around the world.  Siegfried Sassoon, invalided out of the war, captures those celebrations of peace in his poem “Everyone Sang.” But in the trenches, it was the silence that deafened after years of exploding shells and rattling machine guns. American artillery officer Captain Bob Casey wrote,
The silence is oppressive. It weighs in on one’s eardrums. We have lived and had our being in din since we left the Forêt de la Reine. There seems to be something uncanny—unnatural in the all-enveloping lack of sound…. The air is full of half-forgotten sounds: the rustling of dead leaves, the organ tone of wind in the tree tops, whispers through the underbrush, lazy echoes of voices in the road…. it can’t be true…We cannot comprehend the stillness.††
His Bunkie by WJ Aylward
Smithsonian AF25661

Captain Harry Truman (the future U.S. president) said, “It was so quiet it made me feel as I’d suddenly been deprived of my ability to hear,”° while Connell Albertine of the 26th Yankee Division remembered, “We ran out into No-Man’s Land and stood there, stunned by the quiet, a quietness we had never before experienced.”°°

Soldiers found it hard to celebrate the peace without remembering those who would never return home. British Lieutenant Patrick Campbell wrote,
I felt excited, and happy, but in an uncertain subdued way. I did not want to shout or to drink; there was nothing to drink anyway. I wanted to be with my friends, but none of those of my age were left in the brigade.°°°

It had been an indescribable war, and words were inadequate to describe its end. For many soldiers at the front, when the eleventh hour finally arrived, they could do nothing but stand and stare.
* Joseph E. Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour. Random House, 2004, pp 378-379.
** Persico, Eleventh Month, p. 322.
*** Quoted in History of Buffalo and Erie County, 1914-1919.  Edited by Daniel J. Sweeney.
† Robert Lee Bullard, Personalities and reminiscences of war. Doubleday, 1925, p. 304.
†† Robert J. Casey, The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears, J.H. Sears, 1927, pp. 329-330.
° Persico, Eleventh Month, p. 352.
°° Connell Albertine, Yankee Doughboy, Branden Press, 1968, p. 234.
°°° Quoted in John Toland’s No Man’s Land, Doubleday, 1980, p. 577.