Monday, January 29, 2018

Laughing at war

Pantomime rehearsal at Baupaume Jan 1918,  © IWM Q8378
Recovering in hospital from a war wound, Canadian soldier Tom Johnson wrote to his sweetheart,
What an awful job you will have to make me into a dignified Methodist minister. For the last two days two nurses have had to make a savage attack on me & my bed to get “that Canadian” out before 7 am. But today I routed the enemy who had brought up a bowl of water to sprinkle on me, by upsetting it in their hands with a crutch I had secreted under my bedclothes in case of a raid at dawn. The man in the next bed & I won a complete victory this time - they said it was “just like those Canadians.”*

Though he may have teased the nurses, Johnson made clear his appreciation for the Canadian sisters at the hospital. Complimenting their readiness to joke and laugh, he writes in the same letter, “I begin to think that the gift of humor is as priceless as the gift of physical courage.”*

Soldiers responded to the deadly seriousness of the war with humor that helped them to endure physical hardship, cope with psychological trauma, and strengthen the bonds of comradeship. In his essay on Canadian soldiers’ humor in the Great War, historian Tim Cook writes,
Comedy and humour allowed for the soldiers to exert some control over their wartime experience….In this war of endurance, laughter was armour, the joke was a crutch, and the song was a shield.  Gentle or jagged, humour was everywhere.”**

Humor even found its way into war poetry. Robert M. Eassie, serving with the Canadian 5th Battalion, published his comic verse in the 1917 volume Odes to Trifles. A review appearing in
The Literary Digest proclaimed that the author “must be the most cheerful man in all the Canadian Expeditionary Forces,” for the “incurable optimist beguiles his time in the trenches by bringing the Nursery Rimes up to date.”† Eassie’s book included twenty-four parodies of children’s rhymes in the section titled “Rhymes from a New Nursery.”  Here are just two examples:
Reg Maurice WWI postcard

Jack and Bill, they stuck it till
Their knees were under water;
Jack fell down, and said to Bill
Some words he didn’t oughter!

Fritzie-Witzie sat on a bomb,
Fritzie-Witzie went up pom-pom!
All Bill’s Herr Doktors and medicine men
Couldn’t put Fritzie together again!

Subverting the idealism of war-time heroics, the first poem laughs not only at the soldier’s obscenity-laden response to the discomforts and indignities of the Western Front, but at the absurdity of moral codes that condemn cursing while promoting killing.  The second poem trivializes terror as it mocks death and dismemberment, the grisly realities of a battle zone littered with unburied and unidentifiable human remains.

Odes to Trifles also included an entire “Alphabet of Limericks.” Though its origins are uncertain, the limerick's humor lies in its treatment of taboo subjects. Robert Eassie's examples delight in exposing wounds in unmentionable places and soldiers’ sexual dalliances; heroism is best left to brave girls.

Donald McGill WWI postcard
There was a young hero of Aire
Who was hit, but he couldn’t say where,
Till a comrade close by
Said, “Just sit down and try,”
And he did, and he shouted, “It’s there!”

There was a brave girl of Nieppe
Who was full of sand, ginger, and pep;
With Taube or Fokker
The Huns couldn’t shock her
And she’d smile when she spotted a Zepp!

There was a sweet thing at Olhain
Whose kisses were hard to obtain;
But, once they were snatched,
They couldn’t be matched
From the Salient down to the Aisne. 

Donald McGill WWI postcard
There was a young fellow of Vimy
Who said, “If my sweetheart could see me
Accepting the kisses
Of these here French misses,
I guess I would rather not be me!”

Cook's discussion of Canadian First World War humor argues, “Antiheroic jokes were among the most transgressive forms of humour as they seemingly undermined the patriotic and heroic discourse of the war,” as well as allowing soldiers to “distance themselves from those at home, and reinforce the bonds that strengthened their own insulated society.”° Perhaps the most shockingly transgressive act, however, was responding to the war and its carnage with laughter. The satirical cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather, immensely popular with the soldiers of the Great War, were initially criticized by many on the home front, including a member of the British Parliament who condemned them as “vulgar caricatures of our heroes.”

Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other great poets of the war wrote of the pity of war, the horror, suffering, and sacrifice. But soldiers also composed and shared rougher, ruder verses.  A post-war collection of limericks (ignoring Irish origins and contributions to the form) explained,
Limericks are as English as roast beef; they, and they alone, possess that harmonious homely ring which warms our hearts when we hear them repeated round the camp-fire. Whenever two or three of our countrymen are gathered together in rough parts of the world, there you will find these verses; it is limericks that keep the flag flying, that fill you with a breath of old England in strange lands, and constitute one of the strongest sentimental links binding our Colonies to the mother-country.°°
Canadian author Robert Eassie is likely to have laughed at the sentiment.  
* Thomas William Johnson, “My dear Lulu,” 11 October 1917, Canadian Letters and Images Project,, Accessed 27 Jan. 2018.
** Tim Cook, “‘I will meet the world with a smile and a joke,’ Canadian Soldiers’ Humour in the Great War,” Canadian Military Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2015, p. 50.
† “Current Poetry,” Literary Digest, Vol. 56, 30 March 1918, p. 42. 
° Cook, “I will meet the world,” pp. 57-58.
°° Norman Douglas, “Introduction,” Some Limericks, Library of Alexandria, 1929.

Monday, January 22, 2018

An Irish Airman

Major Robert Gregory
On January 23, 1918, an Irish pilot and recipient of the Military Cross was killed when his plane fell from the sky over Padua, Italy.  The airman was Major Robert Gregory, remembered by W.B. Yeats in his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Gregory was the only son of Lady Augusta Gregory, playwright and close friend of W.B. Yeats, and it was at Lady Gregory’s urging that Yeats wrote in memory of her son.  

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

Recruiting poster,
published in Dublin
I know that I shall meet my fate  
Somewhere among the clouds above;  
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;  
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,  
No likely end could bring them loss  
Or leave them happier than before.  
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,  
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight  
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;  
I balanced all, brought all to mind,  
The years to come seemed waste of breath,  
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
            —W.B. Yeats

Yeats’ poem for Gregory presents a solitary pilot, haunted by the vision not only of his death, but also of his past and his future (“ a waste of breath”).  Alone in the clouds, the airman distances himself from both the political turmoil of the Great War and the struggle for Irish independence; he is driven instead by a “lonely impulse of delight.”  What anchors him to this world are local, personal concerns: a small town in Galway and its impoverished people.

Old Kiltartan Church and Graveyard, photo by Tony O'Neill 
Yeats’ poem idealizes Robert Gregory as a man who refuses to be categorized as a war hero, yet the reality of Gregory’s motivations are more complex. Personal diary entries from 1915 suggest that one of the reasons he joined the war was to escape the family turmoil caused by his adulterous affair with another woman.  In 1915 at the age of 34, married and with three young children, Gregory enlisted with the Connaught Rangers, transferring that same year to the British Royal Flying Corps, “at a time when the average life expectancy for new combat pilots had been estimated at only three weeks.”*

Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Robert Gregory
photo by W.E. Bailey, courtesy of Colin Smythe
And for what did Gregory die? Yeats’ poem suggests the Gregory’s life was sacrificed to the wastefulness of war—that no matter how he died, his sacrifice would not significantly alter his country’s future. Official military records in the British National Archives report that Gregory’s death was an accident of friendly fire, that he was “shot down in error by an Italian pilot.”** Lady Gregory provides yet another account; writing to a friend several days after her son’s death, she states that Robert was returning from a flight over enemy territory, “when at a great height they believe he fainted and did not come back to consciousness in this world.”** Most recently, Geoffrey O’Byrne-White, a Gregory descendant and director of the Irish Aviation authority, has argued that Gregory lost consciousness and crashed due to an adverse reaction to the Spanish flu vaccine that he had received on the morning of his last flight. O’Byrne-White argues that “strict wartime censorship suppressed any references to the worsening Spanish flu pandemic or possible faulty inoculations and that this may also explain why Major Gregory’s death was attributed to so-called friendly fire in the records of the Royal Flying Corps.”**
Gregory's grave, Padua, Italy

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” highlights the complexities of the Great War and modern memory: simple narratives of heroism often smooth over contradictory details. Recent editorials in Irish newspapers have argued that despite the 40,000 Irishmen killed in the First World War (compared to 1,400 in the Irish War of Independence and several thousand in the Irish Civil War), “until recently, Irish participation in the Great War was airbrushed out—except in Northern Ireland.”

Also frequently erased from the history of the war are accounts of the Spanish flu, a disease not created by the war, but weaponized and spread by it, a pandemic that “killed at least eight times more people than the war did, accumulating an estimated eighty million deaths worldwide between 1919 and early 1920.”††
Yeats’ poem for Major Robert Gregory is remarkable both for what it reveals and what it obscures. The poem reminds us that Irish history, the Great War, as well as the life and death of Robert Gregory are all complex realities: tangled, disputed, and defying easy interpretation. 
* James Pethica, “Yeats’s ‘perfect man,’” Dublin Review, vol. 35, Summer 2009,
** Ray Burke, “Challenge to official accounts of Gregory death in WWI,” RTÉ, 6 Jan. 2018,
† Sean Farrell, “It’s a long way to Tipperary: Two books on Irish participation in WW1,” Irish Independent, 14 Dec. 2014,
†† Jane Elizabeth Fisher,“Teaching the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Part of a World War I Curriculum,” Teaching Representations of the First World War, edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee, MLA, 2017, p. 193.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Only a Boche

French soldier, German POWs, volunteer ambulance driver
“It was eerie never to see Germans, or almost never,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.* Fussell relates a British soldier’s first impression on seeing German prisoners of war:
Germans!....Even in the tumult of a few hours ago they had been distant and such very ‘unknown,’ mysterious, invisible beings….One felt, “So this is the Enemy. These are the firers of those invisible shots, those venomous machine guns, all the way from Germany and here at last we meet.”* 

In David Jones’ epic poem of the Great War, In Parenthesis, the Welsh soldier dedicates his work to friends and fellow soldiers, but also includes “the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.”** 

“So this is the Enemy”—venomous brutes or comrades in misadventure? Soldiers and civilians on all sides wrestled to define their adversaries in terms that would make the killing easier and the war justifiable.  Actual meetings between adversaries complicated the stereotypes.

Only a Boche†

We brought him in from between the lines: we’d better have let him lie;
For what’s the use of risking one’s skin for a tyke that's going to die?
What’s the use of tearing him loose under a gruelling fire,
When he’s shot in the head, and worse than dead, and all messed up on the wire?

However, I say, we brought him in.  Diable! The mud was bad;
The trench was crooked and greasy and high, and oh, what a time we had!
And often we slipped, and often we tripped, but never he made a moan;
And how we were wet with blood and with sweat! but we carried him in like our own.

Now there he lies in the dug-out dim, awaiting the ambulance,
And the doctor shrugs his shoulders at him, and remarks, “He hasn’t a chance.”
And we squat and smoke at our game of bridge on the glistening, straw-packed floor,
And above our oaths we can hear his breath deep-drawn in a kind of snore.

German WWI postcard
For the dressing station is long and low, and the candles gutter dim,
And the mean light falls on the cold clay walls and our faces bristly and grim;
And we flap our cards on the lousy straw, and we laugh and jibe as we play,
And you’d never know that the cursed foe was less than a mile away.
As we con our cards in the rancid gloom, oppressed by that snoring breath,
You’d never dream that our broad roof-beam was swept by the broom of death.

Heigh-ho! My turn for the dummy hand; I rise and I stretch a bit;
The fetid air is making me yawn, and my cigarette’s unlit,
So I go to the nearest candle flame, and the man we brought is there,
And his face is white in the shabby light, and I stand at his feet and stare.
Stand for a while, and quietly stare: for strange though it seems to be,
The dying Boche on the stretcher there has a queer resemblance to me.

It gives one a kind of a turn, you know, to come on a thing like that.
It’s just as if I were lying there, with a turban of blood for a hat,
Lying there in a coat grey-green instead of a coat grey-blue,
With one of my eyes all shot away, and my brain half tumbling through;
Lying there with a chest that heaves like a bellows up and down,
And a cheek as white as snow on a grave, and lips that are coffee brown.

Photo captured at Amiens of German children
Australian soldier wrote, "A souvenir like this
I think helps us to remember that
there is another side to war."
(Australian War Memorial P00167.002)
And confound him, too! He wears, like me, on his finger a wedding ring,
And around his neck, as around my own, by a greasy bit of string,
A locket hangs with a woman's face, and I turn it about to see:
Just as I thought . . . on the other side the faces of children three;
Clustered together cherub-like, three little laughing girls,
With the usual tiny rosebud mouths and the usual silken curls.
“Zut!” I say. “He has beaten me; for me, I have only two,”
And I push the locket beneath his shirt, feeling a little blue.

Oh, it isn’t cheerful to see a man, the marvellous work of God,
Crushed in the mutilation mill, crushed to a smeary clod;
Oh, it isn’t cheerful to hear him moan; but it isn’t that I mind,
It isn’t the anguish that goes with him, it’s the anguish he leaves behind.
For his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain,
And the death he dies, those who live and love, will die again and again.

So here I am at my cards once more, but it’s kind of spoiling my play,
Thinking of those three brats of his so many a mile away.
War is war, and he’s only a Boche, and we all of us take our chance;
But all the same I'll be mighty glad when I’m hearing the ambulance.
One foe the less, but all the same I’m heartily glad I’m not
The man who gave him his broken head, the sniper who fired the shot.

No trumps you make it, I think you said? You'll pardon me if I err;
For a moment I thought of other things . . .Mon Dieu! Quelle vache de guerre.
            —Robert Service

German POWs
In the dim, shabby light of the dug-out, Robert Service illuminates the paradoxes of war.  Stretcher-bearers struggle to save men who will die – as well as aiding those who will live, only so they can be sent back to the front to be killed.  Survival often seems to hinge upon cultivating an indifferent blindness.  The stretcher-bearers try to lose themselves in a card game, laughing away their own danger and ignoring the dying German soldier they have recently risked their lives to save.

French and Germans alike are “crushed in the mutilation mill,” but the poem asserts that the real dangers are not physical but psychological.  The French soldier in his coat of grey-blue is distracted not by the thought of the dying German, but by the image of his enemy’s family: “his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain.”  While a soldier can die only once, survivors are doomed to re-live his death over and over – haunting both his family and loved ones, as well as the sniper who shot him.

Canadian writer Robert Service is best known for his rollicking, comic ballads of the Yukon, poems such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “the Cremation of Sam McGee” (another of his war poems is here).  But while volunteering as an ambulance driver at the front, Service penned accounts of his war experience that were published in the Toronto Daily Star.  In an excerpt titled “The Baptism of Fire,” Service describes arriving at an aid station where he is told of “two men wounded, by a grenade.  There is a third, but we want you to wait a little for him.  We think he is dying.”  When the aid station comes under attack from German shellfire, Service crawls beneath his ambulance, seeking shelter. His narrative continues,
“Every shell-scream is an interrogation; the answer—what?”
...Then the doctor hails me from his shelter.
“Ah, the Boches will have their little joke. This place is not quite safe.  You must not stay here too long.”
I agree.  It is not exactly the place I would choose for a picnic. I am not lingering just for the fun of the thing.  I am waiting for a man to die. (In my heart I believe I wish he’d hurry up and do it.”)
When the shelling stops, Service quickly drives the two wounded men away from the front-line aid post, writing, “I cannot help looking back.  There, a corrugated line against the sky is the German trench, more silent, more deserted, more innocent-looking than ever.”††  

Questions without answers, the wait for men to die, and an awareness of one’s own callousness and affinity with the enemy: Robert Service understood the complexities of war.
 *Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, 2000, p. 76. 
**David Jones, In Parenthesis, Faber & Faber, 1978, n.p. 
†Derogatory slang term for Germans.
††Robert Service, cited in Canadian Poetry from World War I, edited by Joel Baetz, Oxford, 2009, pp. 162-163.